A laptop for Ben

On occasion I have been one of the resources to which a friend has turned for help with his computer questions and issues. Last night I received an email from him asking my advice once again. His son, whom we'll call Ben, enters a large midwestern university this fall as a freshman, and he needs a laptop. My friend, whom I'll call Bob, wants advice about what things he needs to consider when making the purchase of a laptop for Ben's college work.

In Bob's email he made this request, "Can you possibly help us in our orientation toward getting him the best, but being sensitive to what he wants as well — the X University is a wireless campus so I guess we'll need that stuff too."

He continued, "Any help, insight, commentary, recommendations would be greatly, greatly appreciated." And then in conclusion he added the line that makes this request really interesting when he said, " … money is really not an object (well, for the most part, you understand I think)."

The constraints should be obvious.

Ben needs a laptop to use as his computer during his college career. It will need to be light enough to maneuver around campus to the library, the dorm, and the classrooms with ease, but it needs to be powerful enough to serve as his primary computer and should have enough storage to meet his needs. Ben intends to be a business major rather than graphics artist or architect or physics major, but he has been a gamer in the past. So a fast machine with good graphics capabilities will make his leisure time more enjoyable, I'm sure. He is also "into" music, so Ben is likely to want to use it to entertain himself or as a processing station for his "tunes" for his IPod. Ben has done some work in his hometown as a disc jockey, so he might even want to do a podcast at some point. He needs to be able to produce written assignments for classes, tie into the university's wireless network, use the resources such as printers and scanners that may exist at school and have a software package that covers all his basic needs at school. He doesn't need to be hassled by having to recover from virus or spyware infestation or hardware malfunction. The laptop needs to be sufficiently current and reliable that it will last him for the next 4 years.

So I turn to you, my readers with experience in choosing and using a laptop, for your comments to help Bob and Ben and me to choose a laptop for Ben. Given the requirements as spelled out by Bob's email, and expanded upon by me, and given the opportunity to choose a laptop without undue concern over cost, what would you choose for your hypothetical 18 year old son, just heading off to college? What factors do you think Bob should take into consideration? And what specific computer would you recommend? (A link to the specific configuration would be great.)

Please be aware that because I have moderation turned on to all comments, it may take a little while for your comment to show up here.   

One final bit of information, Ben himself in his message to his dad suggests a computer that a friend of his has recently gotten, a laptop that Ben says, "looks like pretty much exactly what I envisioned." That laptop is the Dell Inspirion E1505.

Is that laptop the best choice for Ben, or do you have other ideas? Should Ben consider a Tablet PC, a Mac, or what? Any and all comments about this subject will be welcomed and appreciated.

And thanks for your help.

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7 thoughts on “A laptop for Ben

  1. Daryl

    Hi, Perry. I’ve got a Sony VAIO that’s very lightweight with lots of screen real estate (you’ve seen it) and that’s generally been a great system for me (running Linux, though it shipped with Windows) for nearly a year now. I wouldn’t mind having some more RAM, but for most uses, even the RAM it’s got is fine. I’ve heard both good and bad things about the Inspirons. One consideration is the spyware/virus thing. I’m always leery of Windows computers for that reason. So your friend might consider picking up a mac laptop, which’ll be elegant, potentially fast, more or less plug and play with most devices, and impervious to most viruses, etc. I don’t know what the gaming situation on Macs is like. Dont’ have any specifics, I’m afraid.

  2. Mike

    My laptop is cira 1999 and requires a bit of time in the freezer before it will boot (can’t make that up). Needless to say, I’ve been looking myself.

    If money is not an issue, I would get the just released 17″ MacBook Pro ( http://www.apple.com/macbookpro/ ). With boot camp, you can install Windows XP and dual boot OS X and XP. I’ve even read others have a triple boot into Linux working. He won’t have to worry what software a class needs, he could run it. The CPU is top of the line (better than XP systems), it will last more than 4 years. In OS X he will have tons of creative stuff, like Garage band for music. 6.8 pounds is not the best on the market, but not bad either. Did I mention the built in wireless and webcam? Or the wide screen display at 1680 by 1050 – perfect for DVD watching? It won’t all be study time!

  3. shel israel

    I think the key issues are computing power, portability and connection. Price may be an issue when you buy a laptop, but it only hurts once, then Ben will have a computer that hopefully will last a few years. I use a Windows-based Lenovo Thinkpad and it is the best computer I’ve owned. Previously I had a Dell that was great for two years then started falling apart and the company seemed to care less about my problems. Macs are very popular on campus and perform extremely well. It also has the “cool” factor to it, which is important when you are a student. I’d go with a good entry or midlevel portable Macintsh.

  4. Colm Smyth

    Hi Perry,

    I run a Dell Inspiron 6000 for the last year that I’m stilll very happy with. I had a Thinkpad prior to that but components started to misbehave after 10 months (touchpad, then hard drive, then battery). You have to follow the manufacturers guidelines about initial charging and then allowing the battery to get down to at most 3% of charge at least once a month). Make sure not to move jerkily (or drop!) the laptop while the hard drive is running.

    A tablet PC would be rather cool (its key feature is that you can operate it while standing), but they are considerably more expensive than a regular notebook.

    A Mac has a great deal of usability and it has the cool factor of being an Apple appliance.

    4 years is about the max life of a notebook (too many components have a max operating life of less than that).

    I think the laptop itself is less important than the way you use it. Make sure you have backup install media for all software (my Thinkpad didn’t come with backup media for Windows and the system software but I was able to request it from the distrbutor because I wanted to dual-boot Linux). Plan to do regular backups of any content (docs, music) say using a CD-RW. Use a USB memory key for daily backups of key documents (like hand-typed lecture notes). Keep different kinds of content in different places (folders) so as to make it easy to backup and restore.

    Best of luck to Ben!

    All the best,

  5. Chris Messina

    I survived CMU with two PowerBooks… essentially you can stay current by 1) buying a 15″ PowerBook with 3 years of Applecare (I never trust the 1st gen of any Apple product). 2) in year 2 of ownership, sell the PowerBook and buy the latest MacBook Pro with Applecare.

    This works because you’re guarenteeing for at least a year that the PowerBook will be covered. Otherwise, it’s much harder to sell the Mac. It also means that you’re staying up to date with technology and not letting your investment depreciate a whole lot (Apple’s tend to hold their value much better than PCs).

    Anyway, I’m a Mac-addict, so I’m partial to OSX. But if you do go Apple, absolutely buy the 3 year Applecare extension. It’s absolutely worth it.

    Oh, and if you want a used PowerBook, I just happen to have one kickin’ around w/ a year of Applecare left. 😉

  6. Juan G.

    Hi Perry,

    I would suggest a Lenovo Thinkpad. At our company we purchased 35 Dell laptops a few years back and they did not have the ruggedeness to last the travel that sales people and consultants do. Once we went to Thinkpads our tech support calls and replacements went down by more than 75%. I was originally in favor of Dells, however, having experienced the improvements I would go with Thinkpads. And I am positive that a student would need the ruggedness and stability even more so than sales or consulting staffers. I have used Symantec Virus Protection for almost 6 years and never had a problem–since there are weekly updates to the dat files. And if I were buying it I would get atleast 150 GIG hard drive, and 512 MB Ram, USB memory for swapping files, etc.

    Hope he enjoys college!!

  7. Perry Post author

    My thanks to all of you who have commented. Your input is very helpful in formulating my recommendation to Bob and Ben.

    I’ve suggested that if he can afford it, Bob should get Ben an Intel-based Mac laptop, install “boot camp” and purchase and install a copy of Windows XP on it. And Chris, I’ve suggested that they purchase an Applecare contract as well.

    I’ve also added that if he chooses to go with a PC that he consider the Lenovo Thinkpad rather than the Dell, because of the feedback you have given about the Dell laptop’s lack of sufficient ruggedness and Dell’s less-than-satisfactory after-the-sale service.

    Now it is up to them to make the decision.


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