Posted by: Ken Brown | November 13, 2009

Laptop Advice

Computer ScreenImage from Flickr by Mandyxclear.

Sorry posting has been slow lately (oh, you didn’t even notice?). Not only have I been trying not to go crazy with stress over PhD applications, working on my SBL paper, and trying to fit in a few minutes to edit my thesis, but I’ve been having unending computer problems.

Two months ago the battery on my laptop (which I use almost exclusively) was running down, so I replaced it, only to discover that the reason it was running down was because of a faulty power cord, which finally kicked the bucket a couple weeks later. So while I waited for the new power cord to come, I dug out my old laptop (ca. 2000), and used it for a few days. I disabled the internet and deleted everything except Word and iTunes, and actually enjoyed working with so few distractions. I was getting a lot of good work done, thinking I might just keep using this one for word processing long term.

And then the harddrive died. Totally and completely dead. I even bought an enclosure to see if I could retrieve any of the data off it, and it just made grinding sounds when I turned it on. So I lose everything I’d done that week, and go back to my usual laptop. It works fine for a month or so, except that it seems to be getting slower and slower all the time. And then two weeks ago the harddrive in that computer fails. It has some sort of catastrophic read error; once again I couldn’t even retrieve any data off it with an enclosure. Luckily I had a full back up from a few months ago, and current backups of all my most important files (like my thesis), but I had to reformat and reinstall everything.

So yesterday, I’m feeling like I finally have  everything back pretty much the way it was… when it suddenly the screen goes black. After a few minutes trying to wake it back up I restart, and after loading the BIOS it goes black again. Windows doesn’t load (it doesn’t even try to load); I can’t even boot from a CD.  This time I think it may be the motherboard, as I put the harddrive back in the enclosure and it works fine, but the computer is completely dead. Lovely.

So I guess I get to buy a new laptop, which I really don’t have the time or money for right now. My wife thinks I ought to wait for the after Thanksgiving sales, but I’m not sure I want to be without a computer for SBL, so I’m looking for advice. I haven’t bought a computer since 2006, and I’m still running XP, so I’m not really sure what I need at this stage in terms of RAM and processor speed. I mostly just use it for research and webbrowsing (I gave up video games a couple years ago), but I do a lot of multitasking and most of my TV viewing is through Hulu.  I stopped by the local electronics dealer and tried their display models out, but without access to the internet or any CPU-intensive programs to try on those things you really can’t tell how a computer is going to perform in the real world.

So what do my tech-savvy readers think? How much RAM and processor power are really necessary to run Windows 7 smoothly when multitasking? Any brands or models of PC laptop that you would recommend? Any that have given you headaches (I’ve had enough of those!)? I’d like to spend $800 or less, but I don’t want a piece of junk either.


  1. for $800 you should be able to get a pretty nice laptop. Prices have dropped in the past couple years.

    Make sure to get a multiple core processor and probably a minimum of 2GB — you can always add more memory later. If you do intend on adding more later, you’ll definitely want to get a 64bit computer that can take advantage of higher memory. 32bit computers don’t recognize more than 3.5GB.

  2. I hope you’re right. $800 is the max I’m willing to spend, including taxes and warranties and what not, but it does look like prices have come down.


  3. I, too, will be looking for a new laptop very soon and have found Dell has some very reasonably priced laptops. I’ve been using Dell for about 10 years now, so that’s all I know.

  4. Dell must be pretty reliable for you if you have continued to buy them. They do seem to have some of the best units for the price.

  5. Although I’d recommend getting more if you can, I’m running Windows 7 on a desktop with 512MB of RAM and it’s working fine – MUCH better than Vista, I should add!

  6. Ken: Chalk it up partially to advertising. When I first bought a Dell, it was all over tv. However, I must say that we’ve had minimal problems with all of our systems. My current laptop is falling apart, but it’s nearly 5 years old and I have used the life out of it. So, another Dell it will be! And, I can’t wait to try Windows 7!

  7. Ken, I can’t resist plugging Linux here. My dad and brother had a computer problem a year ago (not like yours – it was a virus) that was effectively solved by running Linux on the infected computers. I related the event on my blog here

    One pleasant side-effect of getting into Linux was that they were also able to rejuvenate an old computer. That is, if you’re not doing fancy stuff like 3d games or video, you can be productive on a much older (and cheaper) machine with Linux than with Windows.

    There are very high-quality Linux Office suites, web browsers, etc. So, if you have no completely Windows-centric software needs, I’d recommend giving it a try. Perhaps Xubuntu – a version of the very popular and well-supported Ubuntu which is adapted for low-spec computers.

    And feel free to drop me a line if you need help with anything.

    (Having said all that, I don’t have a particular machine recommendation. Except that, if you buy new from Dell, I gather that an equivalent-spec machine is cheaper with Linux pre-installed than with Windows.)

  8. Thanks Timothy. I’ve actually had a linux installed on a computer before, and I couldn’t get used to it. In any case I do use some windows-exclusive programs, so I’m pretty much stuck with Microsoft for the time being.

    On the other hand, my rant may have been premature. The laptop started working again, for no reason that I can figure out, and I’m on it now. Of course, it’s making some rather worrying chirping noises, so I expect it’s only a matter of time before I lose it completely.

  9. Buy a mac never suffer again. done. you can get an an older model or refurbished one of the apple website for $800 never worry again.

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