So, what laptop should you buy?

Hi folks! As I sit in bed watching this episode of The Muppet Show, I’m trying to decide what to write about. Please save me from this next week! Email me (marc at teknosophy dot com) and ask me a question or something…

Just the Fax

So today we’re going to talk about laptop reliability. I often hear, “Marc, what laptop should I buy?” and those who know me already know my answer, but let’s be scientific about this. First, take a look at Gizmodo’s report about hardware reliability:

In summary, here they are, in order of reliability:

  • Asus
  • Toshiba
  • Sony
  • Apple
  • Dell
  • Lenovo (ThinkPad)
  • Acer
  • Gateway
  • HP (Compaq)

Wait… who’s ASUS?

Any laptop you buy can come from one of only four manufacturers in the world. One of these is ASUS, hailing from Taiwan. So, chances are you’ve touched their products and didn’t even know it. They manufacture laptops on behalf of other companies as well as under their own banner. They are also a prominent manufacturer of motherboards for those who like to build their own desktop PCs.

I agree 100% with these findings*. They line up perfectly with my experience in terms of hardware reliability. Don’t discount China’s Lenovo (they purchased the ThinkPad line from IBM) just yet – while they retain the best in 80s industrial design, I’ve heard of people dropping them off of mountains, only to find that they still work when they reach the bottom.

My Opinion… alternate title: In Reality

*BUT… No matter what you buy, they’re all running software, so physical reliability is only half the picture. All of these units (with exception of the Apples) come with Microsoft Windows pre-loaded.

I don’t care how bulletproof your Asus hardware is, or how sexy your Sony’s magnesium lid is- if you’re running Windows, you’re going to see viruses, popups, and other annoyances. You’ll have to install tons of security software, watch where you click, and tolerate incessant error and update messages. (Mac and Ubuntu have unified updaters so you don’t need 900 programs all calling home every 10 seconds looking for useless updates – just 1 useless program calling home for updates.)

I CANNOT SAY THIS ENOUGH – Read these consumer reports all you like, and keep them in mind. However, at the end of the day, keep in mind that the Apple will be the best in overall usability. Not only are they arguably the best looking, but Apples come with their own Operating System – Mac OS X. It does what you want, and leaves you alone. No viruses, no fuss, no muss.

PC manufacturers know this, but unfortunately any attempt at differentiating themselves from the rest has resulted in gobs of useless bloatware trying to make you feel like you got some value out of that particular brand, as is the case with both Sony and Toshiba. I don’t care how long the hardware lasts – whenever I see a Toshiba or a Sony, it lasts about 10 minutes before i start screaming and cursing and toss it out the nearest window. Now that’s a short-lived machine. Everything from bonus software to drivers to restore discs is screwed up when you buy from either of these companies. (Sony is magnanimous enough to offer you a computer bloatware-free for a fee, according to this masterfully worded article.)

Dell, Asus, Acer, Gateway, and all those guys aren’t so bad. You will always have to go through the Add/Remove Programs list and deracinate the Norton or McAfee before you do anything else, then you’ll have to install Ubuntu afterward (article forthcoming), but otherwise you’ll be fine.

Finally, there’s HP. For some reason they’re the #1 manufacturer in terms of volume. I attribute this to good distribution, low prices, and software that slows your computer down over the course of a year. Most of the computers I deal with (software or hardware issues) are HPs – which says something right there. In my experience:

  • HP puts so much spyware on their computers, they’re completely unusable. It takes minimum one hour to remove it and make it usable. Such probes into your consumer behavior include HP Customer Participation Program, Shop for HP Supplies, HP Update, and HP Shopping Advisor.
  • HP hardware crumbles to pieces if you look at it the wrong way. They are truly unreliable, and regardless of the reason, it is so. Many of their laptops randomly decide not to work anymore – you hit the power button, they light up, but they don’t boot.

So, here it is, my super-scientific, super-serial, market-researchy Overall Experience Index:

Yes, that puts HP at exactly -426 in the index. That’s 406 points less enjoyable than making your own laptop out of wood. Ask any of my customers if they’ll buy another!


Sure, Apple laptops are generally more expensive, but if you’re a novice, take into consideration the $200/yr. you’ll save on software repair bills. I should also mention that flashing a student ID card at your local Apple store will result in a ~10% discount and sometimes even a free iPod.

No matter who you choose, you can save a TON of money by buying refurbished. Apple, Dell, and Lenovo have FANTASTIC deals on refurb laptops – these are usually laptops which people bought and returned a few days later because they didn’t know how to use them. They come fully tested, the warranty is the same as new, and in Apple’s case, any external component that has so much as a scratch is replaced. I love Dell’s refurb site – you can get laptops at or near half-off all day long! (As always, avoid Windows Vista computers like the Plague.)


NEVER buy an extended warranty from Best Buy – if it’s a software issue, they’ll laugh at you, tell you it was your fault and you’ll be left with a shiny doorstop (until you call me, of course). It’s happened to my customers. However, extended hardware warranties from the manufacturer are just fine if you plan on keeping the unit for a while.

Can’t leave without talking about Netbooks!

Three years ago almost nobody knew who Asus was – but today many of you know them as the inventor of the whole Netbook trend. Before Asus’ groundbreaking EEE PC mini-laptop, the only choice you had were a few ultrapricy and feature-compromised models from Japan.

I always loved the idea of a tiny laptop – ’tis great for travel. Before the netbook, I only had a few choices:

  • An OQO ultra-mobile PC
  • A Japanese-market Kohjinsha micro laptop
  • A used Toshiba Libretto
  • A used Sony Vaio mini laptop (the maximum RAM is usually very limited on these)
  • Ah yes, maybe one of those Averatecs

Cheap netbooks are now possible thanks to:

  • The enabling technology of low-voltage processors such as the Crusoe and Atom
  • Taiwanese smartypantses who realize volume sales can bring success

The three main differences between a netbook and normal laptop/notebook are:

  • Size – Netbooks are between 7 and 11 diagonal inches in size. I consider my awesome 12″ Dell a sub-notebook. The price tag is smaller too.
  • Lack of CD/DVD drive – If you’re addicted to DVDs while you travel, consider a sub-notebook with integrated DVD drive.
  • Less computing horsepower – Netbooks usually carry low-voltage processors to save weight/cost/battery life. Still, these are just fine for 99.9999999999% of people.

Since its introduction, the netbook has matured from a gimpy little 7″ curiosity to the perfect sweet-spot of portable bloggy goodness. Also note that the article warns against sub-$400 netbooks, as they tend to break more easily. My personal recommendation – Either the 10″ Asus or 10″ Dell models – they’re not so tiny that they’re unusable, yet they’re still amazing to travel with.


  • Even if your HP/Compaq netbook doesn’t fall apart, its mouse buttons are so awkwardly placed, you’ll want to flush it down the nearest toilet upon first use.
  • The first netbooks came with customized versions of Linux that were quick and safe. Most newer ones come with a neutered version of Windows 7, but Ubuntu offers plenty of netbook remixes that are worth looking in to.

So folks, that’s just about it for me today. We’ll see you next time on Teknosophy.


  • Engadget
  • Gizmodo
  • Asus
  • Dell
  • Computer Weekly
  • YouTube
  • The Register
This entry was posted in Electronics, Hardware, Linux, Macintosh, Windows. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to So, what laptop should you buy?

  1. Everardo Thorpe says:

    What is all this drivel? You sound like you’re 12, and clearly don’t know a thing about laptops or technology. I will go back to reading 4chan, where the advice is REAL

  2. Cliff Wells says:

    In our family, we’ve had three Asus EEE’s, a Sony Vaio, an HP 311 Mini, a Compaq and a couple Toshibas. Far and away I prefer the Toshiba’s (using one now). The EEE’s were decent, except for the one that came with a pair of SSD’s (8GB and 32GB), both of which died within six months.

    My wife currently uses the HP Mini and it is absolute garbage. It’s got a really nice little screen and is rather pretty, but it has an Alps touchpad, which is broken by design. It’s battery is also failing (only charges to 37% after only 9 months), the silver paint is wearing off the touchpad. The power jack is also going bad. I like HP server equipment (which is probably the driving force for them making lots of corporate sales), but their consumer products are near the bottom.

    I’d probably swap Asus and Toshiba in your list, but it’d be close either way. My next laptop will probably be an Asus Bamboo, as I’m finding the design hard to resist.

    I really like Apple hardware, but I wouldn’t buy a pencil from them if they were blind and selling them out of a tin cup on the corner. Somehow they’d find a way to leverage that pencil to stifle my freedom as a consumer.

  3. Cliff Wells says:

    Oh, forgot to mention, the Vaio was a nice laptop, but lasted only about a year before the solder failed on the mini PCIe slot (my friends warned it would be the DIMMs, but they were wrong). Still works great, so long as you don’t want wireless.

    I’d avoid Sony too. Great design, bad solder.

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