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.

Macintosh vs. Others

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:

  • Great support if you happen to live near an Apple Store.
    • Check if you do by looking here:
    • Macs are fashionable.
    • Macs can run Apple software in addition to regular Windows software.
    • 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:

  • About 30% more expensive than other brands, especially if you get the other brands on sale. Macs never go on sale.
  • It is more awkward to use a Mac for Windows software than other laptops. This is due to
    • The Mac not having a built-in right mouse button.
    • 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

Learning about Git

Lately I’ve been learning the git source code control system. It’s a distributed version control system, which means there is no central repository. It’s especially good for working on multiple branches.

Everyday GIT with 20 Commands

Alas, currently git doesn’t work well on Windows. (Due to many of its utilities being written in a hodge-podge of Unix shell scripts. Pretty lame. If they’d just used C, Perl, or Python it would have been very easy to port.)

Linux in a Windows-centric home network

I was a happy Microsoft employee for many years, and as a result, I run multiple Windows Vista machines at home. My family and I are happy with the system, especially the Vista Media Center / Xbox 360 combination that we use as our Digital Video Recorder, so I’m in no hurry to try and replace my Windows servers with a Linux ones.

This leaves my poor Ubuntu 7.10 Macbook as something of the odd man out. Over the past few weeks I’ve been learning how to configure it to work with my mostly Windows network.

Wireless Networking

This worked out-of-the-box. If I recall correctly, I had more trouble connecting to my home wireless network when running Apple Macintosh OS X 10.4. Hah, for what it’s worth, my wireless router is a Linksys router that’s running Linux, so effectively there’s no Windows involved. But I wanted to mention that wireless networking and Internet connectivity worked well out-of- the-box.

Connecting to a Windows Vista File Share

Here’s where I ran into my first problem. It turns out that there are multiple ways of connecting to a Windows server in Linux/Ubuntu, and they don’t all work reliably. I found that the UI-based way, using the Ubuntu “Places” menu, didn’t work for me. I could connect to my windows server, and view the server’s directories, but I couldn’t reliably read the files. Accessing files was very slow, and reading large files would always time out.

I was able to access my Windows Vista shares by following these instructions:

Mounting Windows Shares in Ubuntu <– allowed me to read my Window shares.

Permission issues with smb and cifs <– allowed me to delete files on my shares.

The downside of the command-line approach is that you don’t get a nice icon on your desktop, you have to navigate to /mnt/myshare/… yourself. But it’s reliable. You can partially work around this by creating a symbolic link from your desktop to your share. The reason this is a partial work-around is that Nautilus will think that the resulting directory is a “local” directory, so it will try to do i/o intensive things like create preview icons. Oh well.

For what it’s worth, the reliability problem with the default way of accessing Windows shares seems to be due to Ubuntu using the older, out-of-date smbfs system instead of the more modern cifs system. You’d think a hip, happening OS like Ubuntu would fix this problem, but it’s a long-standing one, so I guess it hasn’t made it to the top of their priority list yet.

Windows Printing

This was easy.

  1. First I shared out my printer on my Windows Vista machine. (I never bothered to do that before.)
  2. Then on my Ubuntu machine I choose the System:Administration:Printing menu item.
  3. Clicked on the New Printer icon
  4. Chose “Windows Printer via SAMBA”.
  5. Fill in the dialog box. Use the handy “verify” button to verify that you’ve done it right.
  6. Click on Forward and finish the configuration.

I was pleased to find my printer’s model number mentioned in the driver list. Everything worked the first time.

Ubuntu 7.10 Beta Issues

I’m still getting used to using Ubuntu 7.10 beta on my Macbook.

Unresolved Bugs

  • The bottom task-switcher bar sometimes disappears.
  • Firefox doesn’t quit cleanly - it always crashes.
    • No big deal, this just means that I need to deal with a “do you want to restore” dialog every time Firefox starts up.
  • Macbook Audio can’t be muted.
    • This appears to be a long-standing Ubuntu / Macbook bug, due to the way Macbook audio muting is implemented. Someone needs to write a driver, and unfortunately audio driver writers don’t seem to care much about Macbook laptops.

Resolved Bugs

  • Support for a one-button trackpad
    • Choose System:Administration:Synaptic
    • Use synaptic to install the mouseemu package to allow F11,F12 buttons to emulate middle and right mouse clicks.
  • Phantom button clicks while moving the mouse:
    • Choose System:Preferences:Mouse:Touchpad
    • Un-check “Tap to Click”.
    • Choose Close.
  • Problems connecting to Windows Vista Printers and Windows Vista Shares:
  • Enable Cleartype-like nice looking anti-aliased fonts:
    • Choose System:Preferences:Appearence:Fonts
    • Choose “Subpixel Smoothing”.
  • Enable Java:
    • Choose System:Administration:Synaptic
    • Install sun-java6-jdk
  • Enable Flash:
    • Choose System:Administration:Synaptic,
    • install ubuntu-restricted-extras.
    • This installs a bunch of useful software that should be in the default Ubuntu install, but isn’t due to political differences between the software authors and the Ubuntu packagers.