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Laptop Build - Help me make an educated decision please!

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June 11, 2010 1:51:13 PM

I need a little bit of help from people who have been keeping abreast of all the current intricacies of the different technologies for laptops. I haven't paid much attention since I bought one 5 years ago, and now that I am trying to get up to speed again I feel a bit overwhelmed.


Background:

I'm a student, going into medical school, and need a laptop to take with me to class on a daily basis for note-taking/correspondence/etc. Currently my only portable device is a netbook, ~10.1" screen, on which I believe I would be too cramped when trying to look at pictures close up/append notes to power point lectures, etc. Battery life, screen size (not too big to make carrying a hassle, not too small to make working on it a pain), and durability will be very important.

In addition to use for student purposes, I plan to use my laptop for multimedia purposes. Primarily watching videos, both streaming and DVDs or ripped, and some music. As time allows I enjoy gaming, though this will not be my primary focus. However, I still am trying to maximize that potential, by getting a fast hard drive, a good processor, dedicated video card, and hopefully sufficient RAM, all with good architecture and bus speeds optimized to work together if possible!

With my budget ~$800 would be ideal to spend, but I usually tend to add a little here and there to make it better, so I'll probably end up closer to $1000.


Questions:

1.) Processors?
-From what I've been able to see with intel i7 > i5 > i3 ~ Core 2 duo. Is that about accurate? I also read something about the later versions of the i5 having a different architecture that make them nearly as good as i7's, but functioning with ddr2 ram rather than ddr3, which is preferable for most people for some reason?
-What I understand is the i_ have 4 processors which run. What is a good processor speed? When I was looking around I was seeing processor speeds of ~2.2 - 3 Ghz, is that good? Is that for each of the 4 processors, or some combination value?

2.) Weight?
-What is an optimal weight for a laptop. This isn't really a huge consideration for me, I'll likely just be sticking it in my backpack at which point +/- 2 lbs makes virtually no difference. Still, I don't want a brick. More important will be having an optimal screen size, which to my mind will be ~15", with a widescreen (I'm not even sure if they make the old square screens anymore)

3.) Video Card?
-Probably not terribly important as gaming will be only a secondary function, and the majority of the games I enjoy are not very draining on a system. Still, it is fun from time to time to play some FPS or MMORPG, and if I do get the time I would like to be able to enjoy on my laptop.

4.) Video outputs?
-I believe I will need at least a VGA output, as I will often want to hook up my laptop to a projector in class for presentations. I would also like an HDMI output to stream video to my TV, and potentially to hook up to an additional monitor when I am at home for the much-appreciated space of a second screen.

5.) RAM
-I have no feel for what is good here. Obviously more ram = better, but what bus speeds would I be looking for? How can I get better performance in more ways than just having more RAM? Also, would it be better to just purchase a laptop with the least expensive ram, then buy the upgrade separately, as it might be less expensive and allow me to choose higher quality components?

5.) Brand/Retail outlet
-Are there any brands that are particularly good, or that should be particularly avoided? Either for the quality of the parts they use or for the quality of post-purchase care? I had a dell laptop before that lasted through strenuous use for a little over 4 years, and the few issues I had with hardware were resolved, albeit very slowly and frustratingly as I spent a lot of time on the phone. I wonder about purchasing through an outlet like Best Buy or Costco, obviously less customizability, maybe slightly higher price, but much easier to get fixed I would assume.

6.) Battery Life?
-How can I tell if a laptop will have a good battery life? I've seen people talking about extra cells that some batteries have, how many is enough? Are there different materials that laptop batteries are made of, or is it fairly standard? Also, while I was researching various video cards and processors many of the reviews talked about how they were designed in terms of how low a voltage they operated on, and how well the architecture managed to be a low power draw. In the end I would love to be able to get at least 4 hours off a charge while using WiFi and working with productivity software and listening to music. I don't know how realistic that is though. More would be great too, I love getting 6+ hours out of my netbook, but obviously I won't be able to get a more powerful laptop with the same capability?




Specific Options:

Here's a laptop I found through Costco's website: http://www.costco.com/Browse/Product.aspx?Prodid=115316...|84|56670&N=4017745%204294899853%204294899769&Mo=4&No=1&Nr=P_CatalogName:BC&Ns=P_Price|1||P_SignDesc1&lang=en-US&Sp=C&topnav=

As far as I can see, it looks like a fairly decent one. Can someone with more experience than me take a look and give an opinion? From my own research the processor looks like it's pretty strong, the video card a little weak, the visual connection options look strong, I don't know how to tell how good the RAM is, the hard drive is 7200 RPM (good I think), and the battery is "9 cell" which I have no idea what that translates to in practical terms of hours. The reviews that costco links to are not for this exact configuration of laptop. If you read people talk about how they wish it had a webcam in their reviews (while this one does), and some other differences like that, so I don't know how much to trust them.

I'm also wondering about how well priced that is. It seems like a good middle of the line laptop, but the price seems a bit high. Or am I mistaken? Anything that sticks out as particularly good or bad about this laptop build/price?



Thanks for the help!

Please let me know if I left out any information that would be useful in providing a helpful response to me. Also, if you have any specific suggestions as to where to buy or what to buy, I would appreciate it!
June 11, 2010 2:35:09 PM

As a former med student myself, I can state with authority that the sweet spot as far as screen size and weight goes is 13.3-14.1 inches. Anything smaller and there is not enough detail; anything larger and it will weigh down your backpack too much and you won't want to take it to class. I very much regretted my 15.6"/6.8lb laptop compared to my friends' 13-14"/4.5 lb models. You also want something durable; my plastic case is falling apart after 5 years of in-and-out of bags, banging on tables, etc.

If money is no object (or less of a factor), I'd recommend a new 13" MacBook (which apparently has very similar specs to the 13" macbook pro). You can load Windows secondarily for gaming also. Will be fairly durable and have good battery life. If you are trying to get into the $500-750 range, a PC is the only game in town. If you have a decent desktop PC already, gaming performance in the laptop should be secondary. From what I am reading (I'm looking for a sub $750 laptop myself), any dedicated graphics adaptor (Nvidia or ATI) with dedicated memory should be "good enough" for light gaming.
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June 13, 2010 12:25:47 PM

Actually the laptop you linked in your OP is quite decent and your analysis was pretty much right on. The graphic cards is pretty much on the low end. To be honest AV output is pretty much standard now with a VGA port and HDMI on most laptops so finding one with both ports won't be hard. Now to address your questions and give you a conclusion : For processors the speed is give on per core basis. The advantage of a Core I7 over a Core I5 even though core I5 has a few quad core models is hyper threading technology. HT technology makes your motherboard recognize more cores than the CPU actually has making virtual cores. However a virtual core is not as good as a real core but still adds to the speed of the rig. Now a powerful laptop will run on battery for a max of 1:30 on power saver with a 6 cell battery so my guess is you would probably like to get your hands on a 9-cell to compensate for that as it will increase your battery life by ~1 hour. The price of that laptop seems quite decent IMO as your getting 6gb of ram and a core I5 but at the cost of your GPU being crap. I would recommend a MSI GX640 it has a good GPU a core I5 and is quite decent for it's price ~1200.
June 14, 2010 8:16:31 AM

Thanks for the advice thus far. Based on what I've read here and other sites, and what I've gathered from talking to some people in stores, I'm now leaning more towards this laptop:

http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2364796,00.asp

When seen side by side with the 15.6" screens, the 14" screen does seem significantly more portable, while when working on it the actual screen area does not seem to be too much smaller. However, there is less RAM and the battery is only a 6-cell battery as opposed to a 9-cell. Still, according to this article I posted the battery life seems decent.

Any opinions on this laptop? I saw one at Costco again today. The big draw there for me is the free 3-year warranty (2 standard + 1 for using American Express card) that I would otherwise be paying $150-300 for. I'm a little bit disappointed to see how the specs compare to the Lenovo Ideapad, however, the price is much lower, especially considering the free warranty.

What are the weak/strong points of this laptop configuration? Does it seem to be worth the price? (How expensive would it be to buy the correct kind of ram to upgrade?, also, how expensive do 9-cell batteries run if bought aftermarket?)

Thanks!
June 14, 2010 6:22:19 PM

If price were not an issue I think I would like to get the Lenovo IdeaPad Y460 ( http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2364042,00.asp ). However, it is $999 + 107 (for the warranty), which after tax comes to roughly $1200 as compared to the HP Pavilion $970.

However, the Lenovo model does outperform the HP dm4-1063cl model ( http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2364796,00.asp )

Would anybody mind offering some opinions?

What I'm getting from looking through these articles are that these are the essential performance benefits each has over the other:

HP Pavilion
-Hard drive (7200 RPM instead of the 5400 RPM, also larger but not an issue of performance there)
-Automatic Integrated vs Dedicated graphics switching for better battery life (~5.5 hours vs 5 hours on Lenovo IF you remember to manually switch graphics card on Lenovo, otherwise Lenovo delivers closer to 2.5 hours)

Lenovo
-has the 520M version of the i5 processor, rather than the 430 (what is the difference there?)
-has ATI Mobility 5650 (1 gig) as opposed to the 512 mb ATI mobility 5450


I'm wondering if the increased performance from the Lenovo ( http://www.pcmag.com/image_popup/0,1871,iid=260412,00.a... ), as well as the general idea I'm getting that Lenovo is more of a professional brand that builds higher quality machines as compared to HP, would make it worth the ~$230 extra as compared to the HP? At that price I might as well be looking at a 13 inch MacBook Pro really. I'm probably spending too much time and thought on this right now, any outside perspectives?
June 15, 2010 3:22:08 PM

The Lenovo is better because first of all it's not HP :p  and it has a faster CPU and a better GPU the $124 extra isn't much to be honest for this leap in performance (2.26 Ghz compared to 2.4Ghz and 5450 radeon to a 5650 so I would say go for the lenovo.
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