Recently my niece, who is a senior in high-school, asked me for some advice on buying a laptop to use at college. Below is my response to her, a sort of brain-dump of the different trade-offs she should consider. She is studying music. She does not have any particular interest in PC technology for its own sake, and so I’ve taken some pains to explain terms like "pixel" that I might otherwise leave unexplained. She is a user in the true sense of the word, in that she cares only about what she can do with a computer, and not about the technology itself.
Dear Mary Beth,
You asked my advice on purchasing a laptop computer for college. I might give some specific suggestions later, but first and foremost I want to encourage you to think about how you might use a laptop while in school, and what you might use it for. Then I want to make you aware of some tradeoffs, or choices that you have when shopping for a laptop.
The good news is that it is very difficult these days to make an outright mistake. Any laptop on the market today will easily handle all of the common things you might use a computer for:
- Word processing
- Web browsing
- Managing your budget
- Light photo editing
- Other run-of-the-mill tasks
With tasks like these, what laptop to buy boils down to preferences related to size and weight and style and so forth (more on these tradeoffs below). You do need to be a bit more careful though, if you fall into the following categories:
- You are a gamer, and you want to play computer games on your laptop
- You plan to do video editing on your laptop
- You want to do a large amount of heavy-duty image editing
- You have some other specialized need that falls outside of "the usual thing"
I do not believe you fall into any of the above categories. If you have any needs that fall outside of my "common things" list, just let me know. I’ll be happy to talk through the requirements for anything you plan to do.
Your Target College: My first bit of advice is to check with your target college to see whether they have any specific advice to offer or program that you may want to take advantage of. For example, Northern Michigan University (near my home) has what they call a Teaching, Learning, and Communication Laptop Initiative that offers students their choice between a Lenovo Thinkpad (Windows) and an Apple iBook (Mac OS X). From what I can tell from NMU’s website, the cost of a Thinkpad is rolled into your tuition. The deal also includes software that you might need, support in case something goes wrong, theft insurance, and damage insurance. If your college offers something similar, you should almost certainly take advantage of it.
Windows versus Macintosh: The operating-system is the program that runs when you first turn a computer on, and from there you do all your other work, start all your other programs. Operating-systems are like universes: you live in one or the other, and not both. There are two universes to consider: Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh. Programs that run on Windows generally do not run on the Macintosh, and vice-versa. If you go down the Windows path, you will not be able to do the same things in the same way as someone who went down the Macintosh path. You’ll usually be able to do the same things (no great worry there), but the specific software that you use and how you use it will often differ.
You are probably most familiar with Microsoft Windows. Windows dominates the market today. If your computers at high-school (or at your local library) have a green "Start" button at the lower left corner of the screen, then you are using Windows. Your cousin, my daughter Jenny, owns an Apple iBook. She runs the Mac OS X operating-system ("Macintosh" is commonly truncated to just "Mac"). Jenny just spent two weeks at grandma’s, where you and she spent a lot of time together. I don’t know how much she showed you of her laptop during her time there, but if you’ve seen her screen, then you’ve seen Mac OS X.
Apple is the only vendor to offer Mac OS X laptops. The vast majority of laptops on offer in stores will be running Windows. Here are my thoughts on the choice between the two:
- Windows is the "safe" choice when it comes to being able to use any bit of hardware or software that you might run across. Windows has well over 90% of the market, so software and hardware vendors tend to support Windows first and foremost. For example, my wife has it in mind to buy a box to let her program cards for her sewing machine. Several companies make such boxes. Last we checked, none supported anything other than Windows. Another example is Brother’s MFC-7220 printer. It supports faxing from a Windows PC, but not from a Mac (link to system requirements).
- Mac is the "safe" (or at least much safer) choice when it comes to viruses and spyware and such "malware". My neighbors are frequently confounded by malware on their Windows PCs. I just do not hear that same sort of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth from Mac users. People will argue the cause, whether it’s because Windows is more vulnerable, or whether Windows just gets attacked more, but all I care about here are the results: you will have less trouble with malware if you go down the Mac path.
- Apple, and by extension their Mac OS X operating-system, places a strong emphasis on ease-of-use. Their buzzphrase is that they want their products to "just work". And they do a good job in that area. It’s why I bought Jenny a Mac. It’s why, could I do it over again, I would buy my wife and mother Macs instead of the Thinkpads that they have now. Here’s an example, btw, of the sort of difference you might find between a Mac and a Windows PC: all I have to do to lock up any of my Windows laptops is to close the lid, let the sleep process begin, and then quickly reopen the lid before the laptop fully goes to sleep. Jenny’s Mac, by contrast, will handle that sequence of actions with aplomb.
Knowing you as I do, I believe you would do well to consider going down the path of buying a Macintosh. At the very least, try to find out what other students in your choosen program of study (music) are using. Find out whether any are using Macs. Ask about software. Try to find out whether you would be required to run a Windows-only program. If your fellow students in the music program are successfully using Macs, then you probably are on safe ground if you buy one for yourself. You don’t want to be the "odd man out" though.
Despite all that I say in this section, I tred the Windows path. The Mac world feels to me like a closed and somewhat walled-in world. There is only one manufacturer, that tends to be rather controlling. Software choices are more limited than for the Windows platform. Apple can sometimes value style too highly over substance. The Oracle Database software that I often write about is a big factor for reasons I won’t bore you with. Still, because I know you don’t like to play with computers just for the sake of playing with computers, I encourage you to give serious thought to the Mac.
Shape of the Screen: Moving on to some far less controversial ground, another tradeoff to consider is the overall shape of the screen on whatever laptop that you ultimately buy. You have two, fundamental choices:
- The traditional, squarish screen like Jenny and I have. For example, both she and I have screens that are 1024 dots wide by 768 deep. The ratio of width to depth is 4:3 (1024/768 = 4/3). For many years, the 4:3 ratio was the standard.
- The ever more common "widescreen" shape. This shape conforms to the shape of a widescreen DVD movie. For example, Apple’s mid-range, 15-inch Powerbook screen is 1440 dots wide by 960 deep, giving a ratio of 1.5:1 and exactly matching the ratio used in widescreen, DVD movies.
I’m a big fan of the wider screen ratio. I find it very pleasing to the eye. It’s easier to lay out two documents side-by-side. Watching a DVD movie on a widescreen laptop is a far more pleasing experience. I have no hesitation at all in recommending that you look for a widescreen laptop. But do bear in mind that you lose nothing critical with the more traditional, 4:3 aspect-ratio. Either way, you’ll still be able to get all your college work done.
A note here. I run a traditional, 4:3 screen on my laptop, and I will likely stay with that when I (hopefully) replace my laptop this year. The more squarish screen combined with the very small size of my laptop means that I have room left over on an airline tray-table to set down a drink or a small sandwich. I say this to illustrate why it’s important to think about how and where you will use a laptop.
Pixels on the Screen: All the information you see on a laptop screen is made up of little, colored dots called "pixels". The more pixels, the more information you’ll be able to see at one time: the more lines of text in a letter, the more cells in a spreadsheet, more of a web page, etc. Mine and Jenny’s laptops each have 1024 pixels wide by 768 tall. I would not want anything less. That 15-inch Apple Powerbook I mention in the previous section shows more information in both dimensions. It is 1440 pixels wide versus my 1024 (41% wider) and 960 tall versus my 768 (25% taller). The upshot is that the particular Apple screen that I’m talking about will show all that my laptop can show plus 76% again as much. Here’s the math:
- 1024 x 768 = 786,432
- 1440 x 960 = 1,382,400
- 1,382,400 - 786,432 = 595,968 more pixels on the 15-inch Apple Powerbook versus my laptop
- 595,968 / 786,432 = 76% of my screen size
Don’t obsess about the math. You don’t need to walk the aisles of Best Buy or CompUSA with a calculator in hand. Pixels are expensive too. With your budget, you probably cannot afford to let the pixel count be a driving factor in your decision. Just know that different screens show differing amounts of information, and that more pixels is generally better.
Think about your usage pattern here too. I sometimes wish I had more pixels on my own laptop screen, but I made the tradeoff that I did in order to get a smaller size laptop that is easier to travel with. If you do a lot of graphics work, or software development, or if you just like to have many windows and applications open at one time, then more pixels become very desirable.
Physical Size of the Screen: A physically larger screen does not necessarily mean that you are getting more pixels. For example, my 12-inch laptop screen is 1024 pixels wide by 768 tall. My wife’s laptop has a 14-inch screen that is also 1024 pixels wide by 768 tall. Her screen is "bigger" than mine, but she and I see the same number of pixels, and so the same amount of information. The difference is one of magnification. Letters, buttons, and such are simply larger on my wife’s screen than on mine.
Laptop manufacturers often stress the physical size of a screen without referencing the pixel count, and so you have to be careful when comparing two screens to consider both physical size and the number of pixels. My 12-inch Thinkpad screen shows the same amount of information as my wife’s 14-inch Thinkpad screen. But you can also buy a 14-inch Thinkpad screen with a great deal more pixels (1400 x 1050). Similarly, Apple makes a 14-inch iBook screen that shows the same number of pixels as Jenny’s 12-inch model.
If you have a difficult time reading small text, then you might give preference to a somewhat larger screen size (e.g. 14-inch over 12-inch) while keeping the pixel count equal. Sometimes the magnification can be too much. For example, I’m ok with a 14-inch screen at 1024 x 786, but a 15-inch screen with the same pixel count just seems to me to make everything look too big. It’s best to look at a few different screen sizes to get a feel for what you prefer.
Two other considerations related to physical screen size are: larger screens tend to reduce battery life, and a physically larger screen means a physically larger and heavier laptop.
Size and Weight of the Laptop: Physical size and weight are important to think about, because they have a lot to do with how easily you can carry a laptop around with you, and that in turn might have a strong affect on how much use you get out of the laptop. Permit me to somewhat arbitrarily divide the world of laptops into three categories:
Heavy and hulking desktop replacements - These are laptops that are best bought by someone who wants to set one up at home and not move it around very much. The advantage being that a big, heavy laptop still takes less space than a desktop, and you have the option to travel with such a laptop, even though it might be cumbersome to lug along. Any laptop that weighs 7lbs or more, or with greater than a 14-inch traditional screen or a 15-inch widescreen, I tend to lump into this category. Much of what you see in Walmart or Best Buy fits here. You’re going to college. You’ll want to lug your laptop from dorm room to library. You’ll want to sit around a commons area with your friends. You’ll want to bring your laptop home on breaks. Don’t saddle yourself with something that can’t easily be thrown into a backpack.
Mainstream laptops - It’s pretty easy these days to get a laptop that falls into the 4-7lb range. Five and six pound weights are easily doable, and without breaking the bank. Watch the screen size too. Keep it to 14-inches or less on a traditional, 4:3 screen, and to 15-inches or less on a widescreen. You’ll have something that’s much easier to carry around campus with you.
Really small laptops - Here I lump anything weighing less than four pounds, or that has a small screen such as the 12-inch screen that Jenny and I use. You might consider this category. Jenny’s iBook, for example, while it weighs over 4lbs has a small, 12-inch screen. It slides nicely into her book pack, leaving plenty of room for other things. I’ve been impressed with the iBook’s durability, and Jenny carries it with her everywhere.
Bottom line: don’t get anything too heavy, and don’t get anything too large. You want a laptop that you can easily take with you as you move about your college campus. Next time I come down to visit, I’ll bring mine and my wife’s with me so that you can have a look at some different sizes and get a feel for what it might mean to carry each around all day.
Battery life: Do think about how long you might want to run on batteries. A four to five hour runtime is probably a reasonable goal these days. Physically smaller screens tend to translate into greater battery life. Battery sizes can vary from model to model. Some Lenovo Thinkpads offer a choice between, for example, six-cell and nine-cell batteries. Some models, like mine for example, allow you to snap on a second battery in order to gain a longer battery run-time at the expense of increased weight and bulk.
If you buy a Windows laptop, either buy one that is branded as a "Centrino", or talk to me first. Centrino laptops are built with a collection of power-saving chips from Intel. Centrino is just a brand, but it is brand built around the promise of longer battery life and it generally delivers on that promise. Be careful of some of the inexpensive, desktop-replacement notebooks that you see. Sometimes inexpensive models are built with desktep chips that consume a great deal more power than a mobile chip would. You don’t want to wind up with a 30-minute battery life. If you stick with a Centrino-branded laptop, you should be on safe ground.
Graphics accelleration: If you are a gamer, or are doing heavy graphics work, then you will want a laptop that has a discrete, so-called graphics accellerator chip along with dedicated video memory. (I realize I might be losing you a bit here) Such a chip takes a lot of the graphics load off of the laptop’s central processing unit. All Apple Macintosh laptops (that I am aware of) include such a chip. Many Windows laptops use an embedded graphics solution in which a big chunk of your laptop’s main memory is used to manipulate the graphics to be shown on screen. Embedded solutions do not perform nearly as well as discrete solutions. However, the difference does not matter to most people. Gamers notice it, because game-playing taxes a computer’s graphics ability to the limit (and usually beyond). I do not believe you need to worry at all, one way or the other, about graphics accelleration. But if you feel you might get heavily into gaming, or that you might end up doing a great deal of image editing or video editing, then we should probably talk.
My own laptop, by the way, uses a shared-memory solution. My next laptop (the one that I have in mind to buy) will also use an embedded, shared-memory solution. Such solutions cost less, and they draw less current from your battery. You should be aware that you have a choice here, but I truly do not believe you need to worry about this issue one way or the other.
Upcomming technology changes: As it turns out, laptop technology in both the Windows and the Mac universes is going through some major changes this year. If having the "latest and greatest" is important to you, then you should wait until spring, and perhaps late spring, before buying anything.
The new brand to look for on the Windows side of the fence is "Centrino Duo". The big change is that Intel’s central processing units (CPU) now come as the equivalent of two CPUs in one. Performance is improved. Battery life is also significantly improved.
On the Mac side of the fence, the big change is that Apple will begin this year to change their hardware architecture from IBM’s Power PC chip to Intel’s new Core processors, which are an evolution of Intel’s Pentium processors.
The change on the Mac side is very significant. If you decide to buy a Mac, make sure and wait to buy the newer technology. Whatever you buy will probably need to last you all four years of college. Thus, you want a Mac laptop with the newer, Intel chip. You do not want the soon-to-be-bygone Power PC platform.
The change on the Windows side is not so much to worry about. Having two CPUs in a laptop is wonderful and fun, but in the grand scheme of things it is really not all that important. If you need two CPUs, you would already know it. I still do a lot of work, including running the Oracle database, on a four-year-old laptop. For the day-to-day work that you’ll be doing, one CPU will do just fine for as far into the future as I can foresee. Consider two CPUs a nice bonus, but don’t be afraid to pick up a good deal on a close-out, single-CPU model.
Ports and connectors and such: Laptops come with a variety of ports and connectors and features. At a minimum, I’d recomend at least the following:
- At least two USB ports (one for a mouse, another for, perhaps, a printer)
- A drive capable of playing DVDs and recording CDs. (Look for "CD-RW/DVD-ROM" in the feature list)
- Wireless networking (often called "wi-fi"). Look for at least 802.11b. Better is 802.11b/g. If you see an "a", as in "a/b/g", that "a" is of little real use. "b/g" is what you really want.
- An external display connecter so that you can plug in an external monitor. For example, you might want to plug in to an overhead projecter for a class presentation.
Most laptops will come with all of the above. Some still come without wireless though, so do watch out for that.
Memory: Buy a laptop that can be expanded to hold at least 1GB of memory. Many come initially with only 256MB. That’s really not enough. You want at least 512MB right off the bat, so you may need to budget for an immediate upgrade. Give yourself some breathing room too, by making sure that you can eventually plug in 1GB.
Some specific recommendations: I should probably try and make a few, specific recommendations. And so I will:
- Were I to buy a Windows laptop today, I would look first to Lenovo Thinkpad. My last two laptops have been Thinkpads, and I’ve bought them for both my wife and my mother. Thinkpads are good, solid machines that give little trouble, and the support I get when something goes wrong is top-notch. I hardly look at any other brand these days.
- Aside from Thinkpads, I know at least one person who is happy with his Hewlett-Packard laptop; Acer seems to be making some well-reviewed laptops (link and link) these days (though I know nothing about their support); another friend is very happy with his recently purchased Toshiba Tablet PC, Sony seems to make some stylish models. These are all mainstream brands that you probably wouldn’t go wrong in buying.
- You asked about Dell. I’ve used a Dell Latitude in the past, and it was a solid, well-built machine. Beware though, that Dell markets two lines of laptop. Dell Latitude’s are marketed to businesses. Dell Inspiron’s however, are consumer-oriented. I’ve seen a few Inspirons and have never been impressed with them. If you go Dell, go Latitude.
- If you want a Mac, you have only one choice and that is Apple (iBooks and Powerbooks). Fortunately, Apple hardware is good stuff. I have no concerns at all about their quality and support.
Dare I recommend a specific model? You might consider Lenovo’s Thinkpad Z60t series (watch for the “t” at the end; the “m” is a heavier model). The Z60t is relatively small yet mainstream, weighs only 4.6 lbs (some configurations weigh a tad less), has a 14-inch widescreen display with a reasonable pixel count, gives two battery choices (for shorter or longer life), supports a second battery in place of the CD drive (for up to 8 hours of battery life), and garners good reviews (link and link and link). Thinkpads are a bit pricey, but worth it, in my opinion. Also look at Apple’s new, Intel-based laptops when they are announced this month (probably by the time you get this letter).
And I’ve rambled on long enough: Mary Beth, that’s all the advice I have to offer for now. If you’re reading this online, watch the space below. Others will no doubt have differing opinions that you might want to consider. Readers might also suggest tradeoffs and features that I didn’t think to mention. Good luck with your decision. Feel free to let me know what you plan to purchase before you pull the trigger. I’ll be happy to discuss more, offer further opinions, etc.
I don’t pretend to have all the good advice. Feel free to add your own thoughts below. There are a lot of choices out there in the world of laptops these days.