Laptop buying advice

A friend recently asked me for advice on buying a laptop for a college student. Here's the advice I gave them:

These days laptops from different companies are all pretty similar. They use roughly the same parts, and are built in exactly the same Chinese factories. So I would try to figure out roughly what configuration you wanted, and then shop for the best deal, pretty much ignoring the manufacturer.

The first decision, and the only one where the manufacturer matters, is whether you want a Macintosh or a non-Macintosh. The benefits of a Mac are:
  1. Great support if you happen to live near an Apple Store.
    1. Check if you do by looking here: http://www.apple.com/retail/
  2. Macs are fashionable.
  3. Macs can run Apple software in addition to regular Windows software.
  4. Macs have good resale value. (Although laptops in general are very fragile, so it's likely that your laptop will break before you resell it.)
The disadvantages of a Macintosh are:
  1. About 30% more expensive than other brands, especially if you get the other brands on sale. Macs never go on sale.
  2. It is more awkward to use a Mac for Windows software than other laptops. This is due to
    1. The Mac not having a built-in right mouse button.
    2. You have to go through extra steps to buy and install the Windows operating system.
I currently own a MacBook and I also use a MacBook Pro laptop at work. I bought the MacBook because I thought it was pretty, and I wanted to experiment with using Apple software. I like it -- it is a good compromise on size, performance, cost, and so on.

I especially like the service I get from the Apple Store. I live about 2 miles away from the Bellevue Apple Store. I have had two problems with my Macbook since I bought it:
  1. My kids pulled off several of the keys, and even lost three. The Apple Store gave me replacement keys for free, and even put them on the keyboard for me, also for free.
  2. The laptop battery stopped working. In this case the Apple Store gave me a new battery ($100 value) free, no questions asked.
I also use a Macbook Pro loaned to me by my work. They give people a choice between a Macbook Pro and a Leonovo Thinkpad T60. I'd say the split is about 50/50 on which notebook people choose. The Leonovo Thinkpad line, formerly made by IBM is one of the best "no nonsense business computer" laptop lines. They have especially good keyboards.

The Macbook Pro is much larger than the Macbook. It is also much heavier. I find both notebooks are good, and I don't think the Macbook Pro, at around $2500, is 2.5 times better than the Macbook, at around $1000. If it were my own money, I would buy the Macbook rather than the Macbook Pro.

As for non-Macintosh laptops, I would look for a laptop with these features:
  • A good keyboard
  • Built in wireless networking
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • A good screen (bright and easy to read.)
  • 40 GB hard disk
  • CD-ROM/DVD-ROM drive
  • Weight around 4 to 5 pounds.
  • Doesn't get too hot in use, has a quiet fan
  • Price around $800 to $1200
If given a choice between several models with different speeds of CPU, I would choose the cheapest/slowest, because all of the CPUs are really fast these days.

And I would be happy to buy a slightly older laptop model on sale. Laptops typically are only sold for 6 months, they are then replaced by a slightly better model. When a model is replaced, it often goes on sale at a good price.

I would consider laptops by pretty much any brand. And I think I would try to see the laptops in person before buying, as that's the best way to judge whether the screen looks good, or the
keyboard is comfortable to type on.

One frustrating thing about laptops is that the build quality varies greatly from model to model, even within the same company. So just because one model is reliable, doesn't mean another similar model from the same company will be reliable.

A good web site for laptop review information is http://www.notebookreview.com/

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