Forays into Laptop Land (by a Desktop Builder)


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I was sick and tired of the 15-minute boot-up times on my old computer—and I didn’t think it had much life left in it, anyway. I knew that I would need something that I could take to my engineering classes, but I had never looked into a laptop before. Ugh… where do I even start? Well, with the basics, I suppose. Operating systems, ahoy!

I decided that a Windows laptop would be better for my future classes (he typed on his work MacBook Pro at 35000 feet, with said Windows laptop safely tucked away in the overhead bin for use at the hotel—I’m not as biased as I once was). I decided on Windows because of the wealth of programs that are exclusively available for it, including some of the applications that I would need while pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering. Many of my alums chose MacBooks, or even wiped their Windows laptops and dropped in their favorite Linux distro (Ubuntu, anyone?).  And, to be honest, I wanted to be able to run games on my new laptop in-between classes, and at the occasional LAN party. I knew the Mac would struggle with gaming, not because of any hardware deficiencies but rather due to a lack of developer support from some game companies. So, the slightly better-rounded of two evils… Microsoft, it is. Okay, what’s next?

Having built my own custom desktop computers for years, I knew a fair bit about the internals of the machine. I also knew that it would likely cost me more than I had in my skeletally thin piggy bank to get the specs necessary to use the machine for everything I wanted. I did some begging, made a withdrawal from the Bank of Dad, and ended up with a budget of about $1400 in exchange for a promise to my parents that I wouldn’t need to buy another one in the next year (five years going strong and it still plays Starcraft II, so I’m happy!).

For me, choosing my specs revolved around restricting my budget to $1400 and getting the fastest processor I could—while maintaining a dedicated onboard graphics card (because integrated graphics at the time just couldn’t support graphically intensive applications).

Here’s the techie blow-by-blow of my thought process:

  • I knew I needed a dual-core processor, so I went with the Intel Core 2 Duo because I read a lot of reviews and found it to have adequate performance at a not-so-prohibitive price. I went with 4GB of RAM at the time, in order to support switching between engineering programs and the basics (32 different chat windows, at least three Chrome tabs, and no less than four Excel/Word documents in the background—you know, just the necessities).
  • Having a good track record with NVIDIA graphics cards in my custom-built desktop PCs, I went with one of the NVIDIA mobile graphics cards with 512MB of dedicated video memory. I knew that for gaming I’d need something with decent graphical processing power under the hood.
  • The standard HDD at the time was 256GB, and that was enough for my needs at the time. (I have since dropped in a newer 512GB HDD that is also moderately faster, just because the original started making horrible grinding noises after three and a half years).
  • 14” seemed too small for a screen, and 17” way too big, so I took the middle-of-the-road 15.6” screen. My Goldilocks choice ended up being perfect—I constantly complain about the 14” on my work’s MacBook, and I can hardly lift my dad’s 17” work laptop without straining something. Also, 15.6” was a perfect fit for both of the backpacks I have since purchased (with those fancy laptop ease-of-travel pouches).
  • I have since learned much more about batteries, which may have tempered my choice, but back then I didn’t even care—I figured that I’d be in the classroom for 50% of the time and at the library for the other 50% with no lack of available AC outlets. Oh, to be young and naïve again… It has since been revealed that the best way to extend a battery’s lifetime is to not leave it charging 100% of the time. If I could, I would go back and educate myself (and spend the extra $90 to get a spare battery).

It’s important to note that all of my research was spent picking parts piecemeal from different laptops that I had searched on—which was effective at teaching me which parts were good, as I was voraciously consuming reviews, but I hadn’t yet found The One Laptop to Pwn Them All. I knew that it was possible to custom build a laptop, but I also knew that it was out of my price range—I was starting to grow worried that I wouldn’t be able to find any one laptop that would fit my needs.

By far, the most important thing to consider when looking into a new laptop (or any product that you’re buying online) is the wealth of reviews from consumers like you. Never rush headlong into the fiery chasm of an impulse-buy. Your wallet (*ahem* or dad) will thank you. I read reviews and comparisons for two weeks straight before I even had a Top Five list of candidates. Many of the options that I looked at were awesome from the perspective of the specifications and the price. But, of course, what good is the thing if it spontaneously bursts into flames (like I read in one review) or has to be exchanged five times before one is found without manufacturer defect?

What I ended up with was an Asus M51Sn, and at the time it had stellar reviews (4.5 out of 5 eggs, now up to 5 out of 5 eggs since it has gone out of stock).  On top of that, it was only about $1200, and the $200 I saved stayed comfortably in my parents’ savings account. I used it for years as a gaming machine between classes, and during class ran AutoCAD, the Autodesk Suite, three different flavors of IDE for C/C++, Java, and even used it as a server for a Databases class project. Sure, there were a few complaints along the way about the gimmicky fingerprint sensor and the inevitable crapware that comes with any modern computer purchase; however, I was able to minimize the impact that it had on the system by strategically uninstalling services that I knew I would never use (who really has or knows what a Smart Card is, anyway?).

As with all things in the church of planned obsolescence, it is certainly showing its age now (five years later). As it happened, a couple of years into owning it, the HDD started making noise and slowing down, and the computer would get so hot that I couldn’t leave it on my lap. For the typical user, these problems would likely spell The End for my silicon-hearted companion—but not today! I was able to open the laptop, clean out the fans, and drop a shiny new 500GB HDD in it. The new HDD was larger, faster, and quieter, and with the fans cleaned out I was no longer cooking an egg on my graphics card.

Now that I’ve got a job (and many, many games waiting on my shelf to be played), I’m thinking about a new laptop, and I’ll follow the same process I did before. I’m going to be patient, do my research, and find the next laptop that will take me another five years down the road.

Photo by Meaghan Morrison

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