In the market for a laptop

The Army finally paid me 10 months of the back language pay it owes me, about $3k, so we are making some long-deferred purchases. My 2009 edition Netbook (10" 1024x600, atom processor, 2 GB memory) is no longer adequate to my needs. I travel a fair bit and would like to be able to do school work and work work and Minecraft.

I had originally planned to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $600, but I am horribly tempted by things like this (Dell Inspiron i7559-763BLK 15.6" Full-HD Gaming Laptop (Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, NVIDIA GeForce GTX960M) with Windows 10), which is more like $800. Particularly appealing are the SSD, additional drive bay, upgradeable RAM, and non-gimpy processor and GPU. I’m not willing to go much higher than this unless it’s a heck of a good deal.

Things I don’t particularly care about:
-totally awesome battery life
-massive screen (anything down to 12" is doable)

Things I do care about:
-Can be made to play nicely with Debian Linux variants
-Playing the occasional game
-Not having to buy a new one for a few years

Thoughts? Where’s the sweet spot in laptop buying in the 400-900 dollar range? I haven’t been in the market in a very long time.

I’m not sure how much use I can be what with the sterling-to-dollar ratio being so high and the fact that most computers in the UK are roughly the same price, digit wise, as they are in the US (hey, a $999 computer? Yup, that’s £999 here… instead of, y’know, £699 where it should be).

In the £400-500 ($580-$730) range though I’ve been recommending Lenovos of late. They seem to have a good balance of build quality and power for the price points. If you fish around you can find models with an actual 1080p panel in them, which makes for a more pleasant viewing experience; most of them come with at least iHD 5000 or even Iris graphics, and a few of them do come with dedicated GPUs.

Dell sit on the “almost recommended” shelf because really to buy a long-lasting Dell you’re going to have to spend almost as much as a Mac. Their cheap machines may be middle-ground hardware wise but the build quality is lacking.

The other computers in the same price bracket tend to be HPs and Acers, and while many of the HPs are pretty good and recommendable machines, they suffer from the never-ending 15" panel with 1333x768 resolution that makes you long for the days of 14" screens at 1280x1024 (or at least it does if you ever used PAL resolutions)…

Avoid Acer though. At least the ones I’ve experienced in this price bracket have all been underpowered, some of them even coming with a 32-bit version of Win7 to hide the fact they only come with 2GB RAM. In 2016. Sheesh, really PC World? Dayum.

Asus on the other hand seem to be alright for the small form factor machines, but their larger “performance” laptops should be pulled from sale for violating Advertising Standards. I don’t know on what planet a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Celeron counts as an “enhanced performance” processor, but apparently that’s where their fabrication designers live.

If you’re so inclined, there are also refurbished MacBooks which make excellent Windows and Linux machines if you don’t like MacOS, which is fair enough. The past several generations have all had at least Intel Iris graphics in, which is more than enough for simple gaming tasks.

The above is opinion, feel free to argue with me if you feel I’m misrepresenting a brand.

Item one: do you forgive Lenovo for superfish? If so, they’re an option, but beware that Lenovo’s web store is almost maliciously confusing when it comes to matching your requirements with a device. It’s the online shopping equivalent of being flogged in the town square.

Dell’s developer edition devices come preloaded with Ubuntu 14.04. The price on the entry-level device might be a bit high at $1,049, but it’s a nice piece of hardware. They also have higher-end devices (I reviewed the M3800 developer edition back in March), if you want to spend more.

The base-model 11" or 13" Macbook Airs are both almost in your price range. The MBA is a solid piece of kit (my mid-2011 model is still rocking), but loading Linux on it is not exactly a click-n-go operation.

HP might have something in the price range, but just the idea of fighting their web site’s store is exhausting.

And as for the rest of the laptop OEM pile, I honestly wouldn’t touch any of them with a ten meter cattle prod, as Dan Aykroyd once said. Truthfully, with the exception of Apple and maybe Dell and Lenovo, they’re in a margin-shaving race to the bottom of the compost heap. They all seem focused on flooding the market with as many confusingly-numbered models as possible, all of which are tiny variations on each other, in an effort to trick you into buying something. Good luck!

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I don’t know how they do with Linux, but I’ve had decent experience with Toshiba.

But if you’re looking for custom configurations, Toshiba makes it rather easy.

I’d recommend staying away from 17+ inch laptops, because the range of compatible sleeves, backpacks and messenger bags is rather slim (and some of the manufacturers seem to think that you can cut your laptop down to fit inside it).

Thank you, all of that helps.

How does the collective feel about Asus? I can’t help but note that the Asus netbook I’m replacing from 2009 still works just fine; it’s just no longer powerful enough for complicated things like, oh, Twitter.

This one, for example: ASUS ZenBook UX305CA-EHM1 13.3-Inch FHD Laptop, 6th Gen. Intel Core M, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD

Ars liked it.

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Also worth noting that Sunbeam also needs a new laptop. Her MacBook is actually even older than my netbook, I think (though we certainly spent more in its acquisition). I like the MBA option for her, but she has this crazy idea that she needs an optical drive, so we’ll see… For the price difference from a “full-sized” Mac laptop, she could live with an external, methinks.

I rather like Macs, but you pay a serious premium for that design. That said, it’s worth noting that my original iBook from 2004 when I first arrived at the language school after Basic is still kicking in my office downstairs, although it’s pretty much limited to ssh sessions and playing DVDs.

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For a new MacBook, I’d totally consider getting an external optical for the rare times you need it. They are pricey, but they tend to be built well unless you get the 1 in 10 that’s a horrible lemon. (If you do get the lemon, getting it swapped out can be the fun part.)

I buy my laptops refurbished off $300-$400 for a 15" quad core something or other, whatevs.

Of course, I look there right now and they don’t have anything outstanding, but watch it a week or so and something will pop up. They occasionally have the Alienware machines on there too.

I trust Andrew for portables—God knows he uses enough of the things.

This is going to be my primary computing device for a 9-month period in an unspecified unpleasant place with poor connectivity, so I am inclined to go a little nicer than I might otherwise.

Edit: Fully realizing there’s an argument to be made for “buy the minimum necessary because it will probably die in a foreign land, like all of your other electronics.” But I am trying to think positive here.

This is helpful:

Top contenders right now:

  • Dell Inspiron i7559-763BLK 15.6" Full-HD Gaming Laptop (Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, NVIDIA GeForce GTX960M) with Windows 10 [$799 on Amazon, so add $60 for sales tax]

  • ASUS K501UX 15-inch Gaming Laptop (Intel Core i7 Processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD Hard Drive, Windows 10 (64 bit)), Black/Silver Metal [$779 on Amazon. Lesser specs, but fewer complaints about build and driver quality.]

  • ASUS ZenBook UX305CA-EHM1 13.3-Inch FHD Laptop, 6th Gen. Intel Core M, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD [Linked above; just marked down further to $689, but basically conceding that I am not going to do much gaming. In all other respects, perfect for my needs.]

If my time has any value at all, I have probably wasted far more of it than this decision warrants.

The way I’ve been looking at it lately is if I’m not gaming on it then anything built in the last three or four years is going to work. So I’d go for the better build in order to keep things stable for a while, or cheaper price and just assume I’ll replace it off and on.

I like replying to myself.

I went with the ZenBook UX305CA. If it doesn’t meet my needs, I have time to figure something out; I’m not going anywhere for a while, and it might be what Sunbeam would be looking for in a laptop. In the end, a design with no moving parts was a serious factor.

I ordered the Microsoft Signature Edition (no crapware) for $699 minus a 5% military discount plus taxes and expedited shipping because now I’m impatient. Came to about $740 total.

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I wish you could get machines sans bloatware easily in the UK… a couple of OEMs allow you to buy business machines without the bloat, but only online, and sometimes only if you have a registered company number…

I miss when machines came blank and you were expected to install the system in your own time.


I hope your unspecified travels to an unspecified region go well and are ridiculously boring. My cousin finally got a DC assignment after doing knock-and-clear missions for three years (6mo at a time, of course). And amazingly his SEAL team didn’t have any casualties of any sort. Hopefully your team does not either.


It arrived. It is shiny.


Thoughts after a week:

  • 12 mm thick. I keep just picking it up and staring at it. It’s ridiculously small.
  • Super high resolution (coming from 1024x600 netbook certainly), but on 13.3", everything is so damned small that you end up using Windows to scale up to 125% or even 150%. Not all programs play nice with this, so occasionally there’s some fuzziness. Aside from that, nice screen, wide viewing angles.
  • I convinced myself that a backlit keyboard was an absurd luxury. Kinda wish this had one, though.
  • The trackpad is not terrible, but I’ve never been very good at them so I use an external Logitech wireless trackball (M570, on sale for $26ish at Amazon yesterday, so I bought another).
  • Performance is snappy and perfectly adequate for my needs. Things I’ve tried successfully (e.g. good frame rate, albeit mostly on lower res or detail levels): Skyrim, Life is Strange, and the all-important Minecraft. Mostly the latter; bought yet another account, so the kids and I can all play at once.
  • Battery life really is in the 9+ hour range for casual web surfing and word processing. It gets cut in half playing Minecraft.
  • I don’t hate Windows 10. I probably just don’t know it well enough yet.
  • 256GB SSD will compel me to keep only the games I actually expect to play on the HD, but otherwise is perfectly fine for my needs. That’s what external drives are for.

Overall, pleased. Would buy again.

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SSD seems like a good choice for traveling, too. Less spinning bits to stop spinning.

You could get a roomy 128GB U3 SDXC for under $50 and install a couple games you expect to use less to the memory card.


Huh. There’s an SD slot there. How about that.