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Some Friendly Technomercantile Guidance

This is in response to a question sent to me on the Facebook, by somebody who accidentally put a boot through their Macbook’s screen and now has Best Buy trying to extort them for repairs to the tune of about nine hundred dollars. My friend thinks that this is ridiculous, which is true, and that they should buy a new laptop, which may or may not be true, instead of dealing with Best Buy, which is a false dichotomy. Facebook insists that my response is about three thousand characters too long, so forget that, and my friend’s initial question was should I buy one of a Dell, a Dell, a Sony Vaio or another Macbook, with the understanding that her faith in Apple has been somewhat shaken.

I’ll flesh it out with some links a little later, but for now feel free to fill your tubes with the googles.

While I sympathize with your situation, anonymous friend, going to Best Buy for service is a rookie mistake and $900 to replace an LCD is clearly criminal. Those nine bills will get you a three hundred dollar part and some monkey in a blue shirt spending twenty minutes installing it; you should be able to find and price out the part number with a little investigation, and if you’re not comfortable with the repairs (possible!) or don’t own a bunch of tiny torx wrenches (likely!), I can certainly do that for you. You might also price out the repairs at some local small Mac dealerships, and find much more satisfying results.

Don’t buy a VAIO, are you insane? Sony sells glossy lifestyle products, and unless everything else you own comes from Sony the interoperability problems are a nightmare. You’ll be buying that pretty champagne color at significant expense. VAIO’s don’t age well at all, and you can be sure that repairs and upgrades will cost you a fortune, and if you buy it for the colour you sure as hell won’t be buying it for longevity, durability or ease of use.

If you expect to have this laptop until you finish your M.A, don’t buy a Dell. Their consumer-grade products are flimsy, and do not wear well at all; the ones that last tend to do so because they are being used mostly as substitute desktops, and aren’t subjected to the routine abuses of mobility. You can expect them to be basically disposable after their first year of hard use. I’ve been quite happy with their business line, the Latitudes, but they’re bought-by-companies-only pricy, and the Inspiron line they sell to consumers just aren’t worth it.

So, before I go over the rest of what I have to say, let me get my core argument out of the way: If your time has value, get a Mac.

That’s it. You will pay less for other machines, but over the course of their lifetime that is guaranteed to be a false savings; you are paying four hundred dollars more up front, true! But over the course of that laptop’s life (two to four years, more if you treat it well?) that will amount to approximately two to four dollars a week, and in return you get the best hardware integration, the best power management and the best build quality that money can buy in a consumer laptop. No other manufacturer pays as much attention to the experience of using their product as Apple does.

Having said that, you have a lot more good options now than you did three years ago. The claim made in your Facebook thread, that “the problem with pricing of some laptops is that you’ll never find one that is medium ground” is nowhere near right – until recently, unless you were willing to spend an absurd amount of money or carry around a laptop the size of a small suitcase, all laptops had pretty similar specifications – hard drives in a small range of relatively similar sizes, screens in a small range of similar sizes, universally shitty speakers, and so forth. Your big differentiators were build and screen quality, and unless you were willing to spend a bunch more money for an business or executive-grade laptop (light! tiny! superexpensive!) or lug around one of those Toshiba Qosmio monsters (Harman Kardon Speakers! HDTV! Weighs 20 pounds!) then your options were pretty limited.

Then Asus came along about a year ago now and released a machine called the “Eee”, a cheap, tiny little machine with a smallish screen, a smallish keyboard and a smallish hard drive, but with an entire suite of not-Windows-but-totally-functional applications (word processing, web browsing, etc) built in, and sold approximately a trillion of them.

Have you seen these things? They’re really small, about the size and weight of a middling hardcover book, and they’re responsible for a whole new market segment of cheap subnotebooks. The current (as far as I can tell) winning bids in that area are the EeePC 900 and the MSI Wind – they don’t look like much, but for your day-to-day thesis-writin’, web-browserin’, instant-messagin’ needs, they’re simple, cheap, and all solid-state (no spinning hard drive!) so it’s hard to feel bad about abusing them a little. And they cost a third what your more expensive, mainstream laptops cost. Not perfect, by any means, and try before you buy to see how you feel about things like tactile feel and responsiveness, for sure. But if you’ve got a desktop at home and all you want from a laptop is a screen with a keyboard attached that you can carry around without dislocating your shoulder, this might be the way to go. Or, if you just want something really light and really cheap; these things make great “second car” laptops.

So, there you go. To sum up, in your situation I would:

  1. Try to get somebody who isn’t Best Buy to fix your current machine because, you know, holy crap.
  2. Shop around a little bit for these mini subnotebooks, to see what you think. They key here is to do a little bit of shopping-in-stores, to see how they look and feel, and then to go home and shop online for price.
  3. Consider buying a Mac, as compared to buying any of those. If you intend the laptop you buy to be your primary or only computer I would lean heavily towards the Macbook, but if it’s not, I would have to think pretty hard.

10 Comments | Skip to comment form

  1. Mike Kozlowski

    I’m given to understand that the Latitudes and Inspirons aren’t so different these days, and that the Inspirons are basically fine; I can’t swear to this personally, though.

  2. mhoye

    I’ve dealt with some Inspirons recently, and I stand by my opinion: if you’re basically going to use them as desktop-replacement machines and don’t expect to move them around much, they’re totally fine. They’re just not built very tough, though, and if you’ve got to start moving them around much, you shouldn’t expect them to last long. This is an improvement over my previous experience, for sure, which was “the moment you receive it, you need to tear it right down and reassemble it yourself, or it might not work right ever.” Personal horror stories there include finding extra screws rattling around loose in the case, among other things.

  3. John

    Mike, sometimes I just don’t get your thought process.

    You start here:
    Don’t buy a VAIO, are you insane? Sony sells glossy lifestyle products, and unless everything else you own comes from Sony the interoperability problems are a nightmare. You’ll be buying that pretty champagne color at significant expense. VAIO’s don’t age well at all, and you can be sure that repairs and upgrades will cost you a fortune,

    .,,, and then go right to here:
    If your time has value, get a Mac.

    Uh, dude? Everything you just said about Sony craptops applies to every Apple product ever made, *and* you have the added bonus that, on a Mac, the incompatibilities range into every single piece of the software, too, not just the crappy-ass hardware.

    in return you get [..] the best power management

    Oh, sure, because two hours of processing before dying is “the best” on a simple 14.1 with a dual core. Uh, no, man, MacBooks are incredible powerhogs.

    and the best build quality that money can buy in a consumer laptop.

    … unless, of course, you want a power adapter that isn’t going to short out and catch fire. In that case, you need to go with a different product, because Apple doesn’t make reliable, durable, non-flaming power supplies.

    If you’re looking for low price, buy a Dell and pay for their next-day support. And sell the thing on eBay when the next-day warranty expires. If you don’t mind the possibility of a week’s downtime during a repair, save 25% off Dell’s prices buy buying an Acer or Asus. Same-to-better reliability, worse support, cost goes through the floor.

    If you’re looking for “can be dropkicked across the room and the video won’t even skip”, buy an IBM Thinkpad.

    If you’re looking for damn near perfect hardware reliability, at the cost of being slightly less tough against physical damage than the Thunkpad, buy a Fujitsu Lifebook.

    And if it’s really important to you that your whole life be spent fighting with your software to do what you want it to instead of what some programmer once thought you might want to do, if you enjoy interfaces designed to be “uncomplicated” by hiding all the functionality in nonintuitive places that are not the same from program to program, if you like paying more for parts and more for repairs and everything taking longer, AND you want to pay a 50% premium on top of equivalent hardware for all of these great pleasures?

    Then buy a Mac.

    Absolutely. Buy a Mac.

    (All this leaves aside that Apple has recently decided to join the malware business, DELIBERATELY installing software you neither need or want without user notification or permission.

    This is a change from their previous policy. Their previous policy was to provide crippled software that barely works, as opposed to their current “crippled software that barely works, AND here’s some security holes for good measure, how do you like that?”)

  4. mhoye

    Oh, sure, because two hours of processing before dying is “the best” on a simple 14.1 with a dual core. Uh, no, man, MacBooks are incredible powerhogs.

    When I close the lid on a Mac, it goes to sleep. When I open it up, it wakes up, and I resume what I was doing. Every time. No other manufacturer on the market makes laptops that do that simple thing as reliably as Apple.

    The lifebooks are good, the thinkpads are good (but not the entry-level R-models, anymore. They are now not-good) but all the people I personally know who are computer professionals but not systems administrators, which is to say “they have other things that need doing with their computers”, those people have all gone out and bought Mac laptops in the last two years. Not some, not most. All.

    The Apple Malware thing, by which you mean “installs Safari on Windows”? Not good, sure, but still way better than any other vendor’s preloads, and at least you can root around for the checkbox instead of not having any choice about whether you want Symantec and AOL’s crapware spooged all over your system from day 1. And interfaces that hide functionality trump interfaces designed to hit you in the eyes with advertising every single time.

    There are no good computers out there, but the least-bad of the bunch are definitely built by Apple.

  5. Mike Kozlowski

    all the people I personally know who are computer professionals but not systems administrators

    You’ll probably want to download that to “most.”

    Signed, ThinkPad User and Non-Sysadmin Computer Professional

  6. Mike Hoye

    All the people who I personally know and who know the difference between a download and a downgrade, then.

    Or, who I personally know and who are not professed microsoft zealots already.

  7. Jamie

    The current Inspirons are Latitude chassis with slightly lower base specs (once you up the hardware and software options on the Inspiron at the same level as the Latitude, you actually pay more), but with uglier colors.

    I’ve been carrying a Latitude of some sort since 99, and I’ve always been happy with them. I bought my old D800 from my employer when it came off warranty and was up for replacement (now my wife uses it), and despite being five years old, it’s still working just fine.

    I LIKE my Dells. The IBMs are expensive, only slightly more durable despite the claims, and underpowered for the price. I wouldn’t fuck a VAIO with your dick. The HPaqs are shit, especially for the price. Our Macbook Pros are nice, but they are only carried by a few folks for specialized purposes, and they were very expensive. I don’t have any experience with the Fujitsu portables, and can’t comment on them.

  8. Amos

    Over the past few years, I’ve watched Mike slowly, painfully, come to the same conclusion as me. I bought my first mac (a 15″ Al G4 Powerbook with OS X 10.2) quite a few years ago now. I had used Windows, Linux, and OS/2 on the desktop before and each had issues that made me seek alternatives. I haven’t felt that way since moving to the Mac. If something better were to come along, I’d notice – my head isn’t in the sand. But I actually find the hardware to be really good value and I am really happy with the operating system. But the best part is where it counts, the applications. The number of really useful, fun to use, and well thought out applications available by 3rd parties is great. The support for open source and unixy apps is also finally top notch – with many projects making the effort to meet Mac user expectations by packaging them up nicely.

    On the internet facing server side I’m more of a Ubuntu/OpenBSD user (on top of clones and VMWareESX/Dell). As nice an easy as the OS X Server systems are (with well integrated apps for just about everything – I use one internally for a file/auth/backup server and holy is it better than Windows Server) I find I’m always trying to do something a little different or newer or more complicated than what Apple had in mind on the web facing side. In that case I’d rather have a nice clean basic OS that I have zero problems compiling internet apps on (assuming the package managers aren’t keeping up well enough either.)

    Anyway, sorry you are getting slammed. I’ve had other machines and laptops (including some mentioned) in my possession before and agree with your assessments. I think you are spot on about Apple’s laptops.

  9. John

    “No other manufacturer on the market makes laptops that do that simple thing as reliably as Apple.”

    Fujitsu does. I’ve never, ever had a single problem with a Fujitsu waking up again. I have had to hard-reset MacBook Pros, repeatedly, because they locked themselves while “sleeping” under a perfectly normal load.

    “The Apple Malware thing, by which you mean “installs Safari on Windows”?

    No, I mean Safari, and Bonjour, and “Apple Software Update”, and whatever else they’ve decided to “bundle” this week.

    at least you can root around for the checkbox

    No, you can’t. There is no way to avoid the installation of Bonjour and Safari if you’ve got Apple Software Update running, and it reinstalls them if you remove them. And ASU installs itself silently and sets itself to autorun, by default, without telling you a damn thing. They admit to bundling Quicktime with everything, but that’s because Quicktunes’ autorunners are blatant.

    The only way to avoid getting Apple’s malware is to manually uninstall the apps and then the services, every time there’s the smallest patch to *any* of their applications. They all reinstall each other, every time they’re patched. And if you don’t kill ASU, it doesn’t wait for a patch. It just reinstalls the things you remove, constantly.

    instead of not having any choice about whether you want Symantec and AOL’s crapware spooged all over your system from day 1

    If you uninstall NIS and delete the AOL shortcut, they go away completely and they stay gone.
    On that level, in the competition with Apple, Symantec and AOL win HANDILY.

    And how sad is that? When Symantec and AOL are producing products that are easier to get rid of, you’re pathetic.

    Amos:
    I find I’m always trying to do something a little different or newer or more complicated than what Apple had in mind on the web facing side.

    I have that same feeling, but on the desktop and in the application logic and in the interface as well as on the web, and I have it CONSTANTLY.

    And by “newer and more complicated”, I mean “the last time Windows had this problem was 1994, and Debian and Ubuntu have *never* had it.”

    Macs are the D&D of computers: they made incredibly bad design decisions in 1978 or so, and, instead of revisiting them, have progressively added more and more functionality built, at the core, on top of those same stupid design decisions. After 30 years of trying, they’re usually somewhat functional, most of the time, for some of the things you might want to do, but there’s still the constant problem of constantly hammering up against those same shit-poor design constraints.

    (And you’re paying much, much more than you would for equivalent hardware running better software. So the D&D analogy holds there, too. Man, I’m such a dork.)

  10. Mike Hoye

    Your experience, then, has been the opposite of mine, which is that once you figure out the way Apple wants you to do things, doing them that way gets you consistently correct results. That is not always successful, for sure, particularly when you’re trying to integrate corporateware built by people who didn’t agree with, know or care about the way Apple wants stuff done, but generally speaking.

    What are these dumb decisions that haunt us from the seventies? I’m going to need some citations, here; a one button mouse? Plug in a two, or three, or five button and two scroll-wheel mouse, and it will work fine. Something about the OS, the one that was replaced by OSX? Because not liking a one-button mouse is not grounds for this grade of vitirol. Yeah, they had crappier hardware for a long time, and yeah their advertising has always been better than their hardware, but their hardware is pretty goddamn good right now.

    On the administrative side, good god, there is no comparison. None. I would kill a man for something as good as Apple Remote Desktop on any other platform. It is light-years ahead of any other administrative tools I’ve worked with, and I am not a neophyte in that field.