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Mon, Feb. 14th, 2005, 08:18 pm
Computer Advice Needed

Okay, folks, I could use some advice about my current computer situation and how to fix it. Many of you may not care. You can stop reading now.

Right now, I've got two computers: a moderately powerful desktop, and a very small and portable laptop which isn't terribly powerful. Until I started grad school, I basically used the laptop only for business trips, so it didn't really matter that it didn't work great for anything beyond email/browsing/writing. Now, though, I'm spending four days a week at school, some of them in the lab and some of them moving around the campus. I've been trying to use my laptop for this, but it's really not working for me. My laptop isn't powerful enough for me to make it my primary computer, and so I'm constantly transferring files back and forth which is a giant pain in the ass. It also means that I can't do certain kinds of work (mostly programming and design stuff) at school, at least not easily. Suckage.

I've tried for the better part of a year to make this work, but it just isn't working for me. I think that means that I need to get a laptop which I can use as my single, primary, central computer. If anyone has ideas of other ways to deal with the problem, then please suggest them - I'd rather not buy a new laptop unless I have to.

Assuming I have to buy a new laptop, though, I have a choice to make, and I could use some advice from you guys. All the choices have some kind of downside, and I'm being super indecisive. Heeeelp!

Option #1: Buy a Toshiba. maastrictian has one and he loves it. The brand has a good reputation and all his experiences have been super-positive, so I like the idea of getting one. The Tecra M2 falls right at the top of my price range, but it's pretty much everything I'm looking for in a laptop (1.8 GHZ Pentium M, 1GB RAM, large HD, moderate-size screen, light, durable). On the other hand, either of the Dell choices are cheaper, and one of them is equally buff. The main reason to buy Toshiba is because I trust the brand. I love my Dell desktop, but for laptops, Toshiba seems to have a better reputation.

Option #2: Buy a Dell. Dell currently has a $300 discount on any new computers, which makes their m600 model a little less expensive than the Toshiba one. It's got almost exactly the same specs, though it has a slightly better screen but also weighs a little more. It's also at the top of my price range, and I'm not sure whether the price difference between it and the Toshiba should be what makes my decision.

Option #3: Buy a Dell through Columbia. This is the real complicating factor. Dell has several Columbia-specific details, including an m600 which has most but not all of what I'm looking for, for extremely cheap. I can get a slightly less buff processor (1.6 instead of 1.8 mhz) and only 512MB of memory (which, I guess, can be upgraded later), and get the rest of what I'm looking for at literally half the price. After the Columbia discount and the $300 discount, I could pay for it by selling my existing laptop and desktop box at eBay prices, which would be good. They also have a 6000 model for about the same price, which has a full gig of memory but is also heavier and still has the crappier processor. I'm just worried that I'll save some money now, but I'll end up paying for it when I have to get a new laptop in a year or two.

Please help?

FYI, if I buy a new laptop, I'll be looking to get rid of my current laptop (Sony Vaio V505AX, highly portable, great for email/web/word processing) and my desktop box (Dell, can't remember the specs, but still quite buff despite being several years old). If anyone on my friends-list is interested, let me know and we can discuss price (anywhere from free to market standard).

Tue, Feb. 15th, 2005 03:27 am (UTC)

First off, take any of this with a grain of salt.

Secondly, do not buy a laptop with the "upgrade later" caveat. Laptops are notoriously expensive and difficult to upgrade.

One thought towards making your solution work: buy one or more of the USB thumb/key drives. You can get them as big as a gig (I think). Put all your data files on there, only copying to hard drives for backup purposes. Then transfering files between computers is much easier, and there is only one master copy at any one time, meaning you don't make changes to multiple versions of the document.

It does sound like portability is your primary need in a computer, so if you are buying something, a laptop would be the way to go. I'd reccomend the Toshiba, as that's the brand I've always seen universally be good. Dells are good, but sometimes tetchy.

If you only need portable writing power, you might want to check out an Alphasmart Dana (w/wifi $429, www.alphasmart.com). I have to suggest it, even though it doesn't sound like it will do everything you want, if only because I love them. (25 hours of battery life, PalmOS, rugged enough to drop on tile and not break...).

Good luck in your search!

Tue, Feb. 15th, 2005 04:05 am (UTC)

my experience is that Dells are great for everyone but the end-user. Dell offers excellent pricing and streamlined ordering (e.g. the special Columbia package you mentioned above), which means CTO types love them. Dell offers nice hardware support contracts, which means IT managers love them. their desktops are robust enough (though i'm less impressed with recent models than i am with Dells from three or four years ago), but their laptops seem to be designed under the assumption that if you have one, you also have access to an IT department that can give you another any time it breaks.

i would not characterize Dell laptops as sturdy or reliable; they are simple and modular, which makes them easy to repair if you're not the one paying for replacement parts. they are, like many laptops, not upgradeable in any significant way. they also come with quite decent docking stations, if you want to use an external keyboard/mouse/monitor at work or home (or both). i wouldn't buy one with my own money, and i wouldn't recommend that anyone do the same.

if your VAIO is still working after all this time (you got that, what, four years ago? is that about right?) then you're quite gentle on laptops. has it suffered any serious failures during this time?

i don't have enough experience with Toshibas to say anything useful on this topic. IBM ThinkPads are the Dell model done better; again, i wouldn't recommend buying one with your own money.

how attached are you to Windows? especially if the laptop will be primarily for writing or otherwise creating content, consider an iBook G4. what is your price range, if you don't mind me asking?


Tue, Feb. 15th, 2005 04:23 am (UTC)


I'd definitely want a docking station, but it seems like I can get them on various systems, not just Dell. Not a big deal, AFAIK.

My VAIO is nearly three years old at this point, and yup, it's still working. I tend to treat all laptops as if they were filled with nitroglycerin; it helps me not break them. I did have a serious system failure caused by my own carelessness - I infected myself with some horrible virus that ate my hard drive and had to reformat - and there are some ongoing minor problems caused by the wireless card drivers. Oh, and Chris dropped it once (back when it was his computer) and totally screwed the hard drive. Fortunately it was about four months old at that point and still under warranty. :)

I am quite attached to Windows, because I need a machine that can run games. Not necessarily the newest and best games out there (that's what our Alienware box in the game lab is for), but I can't be limited by what comes out for Mac or will run happily in an emulator. Otherwise I would SO have bought a Mac already. I want one, it just doesn't make professional sense for me.

As for what I do with my computer: writing, programming, email/browsing, design stuff, games. It's the last one that's the kicker.

I can afford to spend up to about $2K, assuming I can sell either my desktop or laptop instead of giving them to a friend for free. (I got a VERY nice chunk of money in from an old contract that I never expected to actually get paid for, and have added it to my previously rather anemic computer budget. Whee windfall!)

Tue, Feb. 15th, 2005 04:24 am (UTC)

USB key drives: good idea, don't really work in practice. I have way too many active files, many of which are game saves and email stuff and other large files, to be able to easily hold what I need on even the largest of key drives. I wish they worked better for me. Sigh.

The Alphasmart looks AWESOME. Totally not what I need, but awesome. :)

Tue, Feb. 15th, 2005 05:02 am (UTC)

Well, since no one else is calling on it, I'd be very interested in adopting your old desktop system. My current desktop was a gift for high school graduation (500 megahertz) that I've upgraded time and time again (it shipped with a 10 gig hard drive and 128 megs of ram), but the time has come when I simply need a faster processor. I could keep upgrading the stupid thing or I could just buckle down and get a new tower.

If I don't get your old system, I'd be spending a big chunk of change on a new system anyway, so I'd be happy to negotiate a fair price with you. Let me know!


Tue, Feb. 15th, 2005 03:41 pm (UTC)

Sweet, Ike! If I succeed in finding a reasonable laptop to use as my only computer, it's yours.