Buying a Notebook

This is just a rant but damit, why are the prices for notebooks so varied?

I’ve been wanting a notebook computer lately and have been looking and it’s so frustrating because there are so many tradeoffs. Go for lightweight and then settle for a small screen? Go for cheap and therefore no power? Decide I just want to browse the net and read email and therefore don’t need the graphic speed or decide I might want to program at a cafe and therefore need the graphic acceleration. And so it goes back and forth, back and forth.

For example, of course lots of Mac fans would recommend getting a MacBook or MacBookPro. That rules out the lightweight idea. All MacBooks are around 5lbs+. If I want graphic acceleration then I have to go to a MacBookPro. But, MacBookPros start at $2k, and that’s with only 512meg of ram and a 80gig HD 🙁

Sometimes I almost talk myself into living without the acceleration and going for a MacBook but they start at $1100 for just 512k of ram and a 60gig HD. To give you some contrast my nephew just got a new Gateway MX6931 from Best Buy. It’s got an Intel Core Duo with 2GIG of ram and 160gig HD for………..$999!! and the display is larger. 15.4 vs the MacBook’s 13.1. Try to expand a MacBook to the same specs and the MacBook will be more than twice as expensive.

Toshiba has a few nice ones. Unfortunately Toshiba Japan and Toshiba USA are different companies and they sell different notbooks.

I know it’s stupid but style is important to me as well. On they style front there are really only 2 choices IMO. Apple and Sony. I was looking at the Sony SZ series. The plus to the SZ series is they have both a low-powered intel graphic accelerator AND a fast Nvidia one in the same notebook and you can switch between them. Using the low-powered one you get almost double the battery life. The SZ is also light, more than a 20% lighter than the Mac or Gateway above. But, it’s nearly as expensive as a Mac at $1800. With 1gig of ram and a 160gig HD it’s $2100. For those prices I could buy 2 of the gateways.

What I’m really curious about is why such a difference in price? It’s it really just about branding? Are their quality differences? I know people that have had problems with pretty much every brand of notebook. That includes Mac and Sony and Toshiba and IBM and you name it.

I kept flopping back and forth between resolution issues too. The current most common resolution for a notebook seems to be a widescreen with 1280×800 pixels. that’s relatively small. At work I have 2 1280×1024 monitors. At home I have 3, the main one is at 1920×1200. Resolution matters, especially for programs like Photoshop or Visual Studio that have lots of control panels or panes that need to be open. It also matters for editing code. The more code I can see at once the easier it is for me to understand what I’m looking at.

So, some notebooks have higher res than 1280×800 but almost all of them feature some tradeoff. For example the 15.4 inch macbook pro goes to 1440×900 but it’s expensive. Sony makes a type BX which does 1440×1050 and it’s accelerated but it also weighs more like the Mac and Gateway vs the SZ. It also doesn’t have an unaccelerated option so it’s got a worse battery life. Sony also makes a special F series with a 15.4 inch 1680×1050 display which would be awesome. They call it their “special graphics version” but damit, it it’s not accelerated. WTF! If I remember right it’s not even a Core Duo machine. Lenovo makes one but damit, Lenovo’s are fuuuuuuugly! Those 15.4 notebooks are also HEAVY.

CEATEC, Japanese version of I guess CES or Comdex is this week. Maybe some company will announce one without the trade offs………….I can dream at least.

  • 6955
    paradox of choice

    you are a victim of this. good luck!

  • Sometimes there are “best” notebooks

    Hi Gregg,

    I bought a notebook three months ago. I chose the cheapest Macbook. It’s very nice in the fit-and-finish department, and it’s not too bad for running Windows. (I do surfing, email, and small-scale program development on it. The small screen is a pain for coding, but not as much as I thought it would be. I use 1600 x 1200 on my desktops.) I played around with MacOS for a few weeks, then wiped it from the disk to get the disk space back.

    I figure I spent $300 more than if I bought a similar Dell, but I like the keyboard and the industrial design. And I thought the MacOS would be fun to play with — although in the end it wasn’t that interesting.

    When considering screen resolution, be sure to keep the dpi in mind. I once bought a 1920 x 1200 15.4″ notebook, but had to return it because the pixels were just too small for my eyes. Also the 15.4″ , 7 lb notebook was just too big and heavy for me.

  • mac fan, but…

    I love my iBook and like my PowerBook (except wifi reception), but my Panasonic R4 has been the surprise winner in my computing line-up. The underclocked celeron in it gives me about 6 hours of battery life, the wifi reception is stunning, and the mousepad doubles as a scroll wheel. I’m under the impression that they’re cheap; mine’s from work. If you don’t care about having a trouble-free OS, get WindowsXP. If you want style and a largely bulletproof experience, get a Mac.

  • afroman

    My Asus laptop has a 1280×800 screen, but when i’m coding I use an external keyboard and using a homemade stand (cardboard box) prop the laptop up on its side like a book and rotate the screen 90 degrees in Properties. That way I get a nice long screen of code. Sure it’s not very wide then, but that’s usually not a concern for me

  • afroman

    Either that or just plug into an external monitor at home or at work.


  • doobie

    i’d say mac but damn those gateways sound cheap. i own a 15 powerbook which before buying i thought would be too large/heavy but once i started using it it’s really not that bad. i’m definitely loving the screen space.

  • Nelson

    Buy an HP – huge selection from crap to awesome.

    HP nx9420 or similar is a great deal – large screen, acceleration, cheap-ish.

  • tyndal

    I would not recommend a Sony laptop.. I bought one of the vaio T series last April, the CDRW/DVD drive failed within the first couple of months (luckily repaired under warranty).. a couple of months ago, the battery just failed, it no longer recharges.. luckily it looks like i will get a free new battery thanks to the recent battery recall..

    anyway, I wouldnt recommend a sony to anyone.. I picked the vaio T because it seemed like the best ultraportable laptop.. the other ones I looked at at the time were Fujitsu and Panasonic, still kinda wished I had gotten one of them.. the cool thing about the panasonic was no fan…

    just an FYI 😉

  • Elisha

    I purchased a Macbook (the lowest end core duo) on Friday and absolutely hate it. OSX sucks big time. it looks beautiful but quite laggy even after all the updates.

    and i hate the fact that the cpu is soldered into the slot so you can’t even upgrade it.

    Funny cause i used bootcamp to run XP Pro on it and Xp is faster on the Macbook than OSX is. build quality on it is amazing and so is the built in webcam but other than than its very little system for a whole lot of money. over-rated piece of junk.

    i’m returning it first thing Monday morning.

    i have the Gateway MX6931 en route and it should be here tomorrow.

  • VAIO A series

    I bought a VAIO-A series last year Nov 2005 at a computer convention in Asia so I got a promotion sales discount at that time. This VAIO is one of SONY’s high-end notebooks for that time before the blu-ray version and core duo vers came out this year.

    This model comes with a 2GHz centrino chip 2 gig ram and 80 Gig HDD, its also has an ATI Radeon X600 good with most games today. The largest display is at 1920 x 1200, good for the graphics & 3d work which I do a lot. The downside is that the battery is only 1.5 hr and its quite heavy. But it performs like a highend desktop back in 2005 and have no problem editing HD movies, rendeing some of my 3d scenes and compositing in After Effects.

    Some of my friends were impressed with the large widscreen and style, when compared to their own notebooks. So far there has been no problems with the hardware except with the occasional XP giving some hiccups. Other than that everything works fine. I would definately recommend the SONY AR or SZ if you have the cash and want to make an impression. If not look at Fujitsu or Toshiba they have some quite good notebooks at affordable prices. I kind of wish I waited for the core duo ones, but I really needed a new computer back then for my type of graphics work to replace my aging desktop PC and wanted to try out portable computing for a change.

  • Asus A8JS

    My biggest concern is a DVI port. I returned a Dell e1505 recently because the VGA out could not properly drive my widescreen LCD. Curiously, Dell has DVI on the 17″ model, but IMO the smaller the laptop, the more likely you’re going to want to hook it up to something larger.

    My other reqs are 2GB memory, Core 2 Duo and preferably a 7200RPM HDD. Good graphics card I’m on the fence with, too, but the reason MacOS is so slow is the OpenGL-ish desktop effects, which M$ is ripping off (even more poorly) in Vista. Linux/AIGLX seems to get it right, by the way. My point is, fast graphics aren’t just for gaming.

    As for screen size, that’s subjective, but 1440×900 on a 14″ is ~120dpi, and on a 15.4″ MBP is ~110dpi. 1680×1050 on a 15.4″ is ~128dpi. 1280×800 is worthless at any size.

    I’m settling on an Asus A8JS. NVIDIA Go 7700 512MB, 2GHz Core 2 Duo, 1440×900 on a 14″ LCD, DVI, etc etc etc. And if you order from, they’ll add in internal bluetooth (standard only on the EU models), you can upgrade the HDD to 7200RPM, and for $50 they’ll guarantee no dead pixels. Base price is ~$1600.

  • TomEnomoto
    Buy a IBM (Lenovo) T60p and be happy

    I’m also a big Mac Fan (I have a PowerBook and a PowerMac at home), but at work I use a IBM (Lenovo) T60p, that’s a lot of power, good graphic accelerator, it comes wit 2 GB of Ram and a screen with a resolution of 1600×1200 pixel, that sould be enough for all your windows 🙂 Sure, quality has a price, I don’t know the price currently in Japan, but here in Europe you will probaly get this model for around 1800 Euro’s

  • miles
    Buying a digital tv

    Hi Greg, this is totally off topic but this “Buying a Notebook” entry was really helpful, so I wonder if you might consider writing “Buying a Digital TV (in Japan).” Analog broadcast is being phased out and new technologies are being introduced, so it is pretty confusing right now. HDMI, HDD, Bluray, etc… Would love to hear opinions of what and when to buy.

  • Anoop

    Consider me a Mac convert after a few days with my Macbook and OSX. I love some of the OSX features like the dashboard and the widgets. I have XP loaded on it as well, but haven’t had to use it yet. Maybe when I do website tests on Internet Explorer in the future.

    I haven’t been having trouble with battery so far (this was actually my biggest concern). I’ve run it for 3 hours at a time with WiFi on, and the system still listed over an hour of use time. I tend to spend most of my time in the Shibuya New Yorkers, which has power outlets at every other seat in addition to Mobile BB WiFi access, so the battery is just an option for me when I feel like going somewhere else.