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Looking For A Lightweight Laptop?

August is supposed to be a slow news month in the tech business, but that doesn't apply to me until I get my annual "how to buy a laptop" column out of the way.

The get-the-column-over-with phrasing may sound cynical, but for a few years in a row I've found myself writing largely the same piece (for your reference, here are the 2005, 2006 and 2007 versions). This time around, however, I felt like I was looking at a different set of products. The Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba models all refrained from cooking my lap, they all weighed less than five pounds, and a couple even reflected a belated recognition by computer manufacturers that nobody's impressed by "bundleware" these days. Look kids: progress!

Today's column summarizes my findings and my advice; here, you can get a little more detail about each of these computers.

Apple MacBook, $1,099
* Specs: 13.3-in. screen, 4.9 lbs (power adapter ads .6 lbs.). 2.1 GHz Intel processor, 1 GB memory, 120 GB hard drive. Reads DVDs and reads/writes CDs. WiFi and Ethernet. 2 USB ports, one FireWire port, Bluetooth. Webcam.
* Tests: Battery lasted 3 hours 17 minutes during DVD playback, 3:37 during MP3 playback (with the default Web browser pointed to two pages that reloaded automatically). Time to boot up and reach the desktop screen: 37 seconds. Power consumption when on: 46 watts.

Dell Inspiron 1318 , $698
* Specs: 13.3-in. screen, 4.9 lbs. (power adapter adds .8 lbs). 1.86 GHz Intel processor, 2 GB memory, 160 GB hard drive. Reads and writes CDs and DVDs. WiFi and Ethernet. 2 USB ports, one FireWire port. Memory-card slot, ExpressCard slot. Webcam
* Tests: Battery lasted 2:15 during DVD playback, 3:07 during MP3 playback (as outlined above). Time to boot up and reach the desktop screen: 1 minute and 13 seconds. Power consumption when on: 55 watts. "Windows Experience Index" score: 3.1

HP Pavilion tx2500z, $1,539
* Specs: 12.1-in. swiveling touchscreen, 4.9 lbs. (power adapter adds .8 lbs.). 2.1 GHZ AMD processor, 4 GB memory, 320 GB hard drive. Reads and writes CDs and DVDs. WiFi, Ethernet and modem. 3 USB ports, Bluetooth. Memory-card slot, ExpressCard slot. Webcam.
* Tests: Battery lasted 2:00 for DVD playback, 2:24 for MP3 playback (as outlined above). Time to boot up and reach the desktop screen: 1 minute and 14 seconds. Power consumption when on: 56 watts. "Windows Experience Index" score: 4.0

Toshiba Satellite U405-S2854, $950
* Specs: 13.3-in. screen, 4.6 lbs. (power adapter adds .9 lbs.). 2 GHz Intel processor, 3 GB memory, 320 GB hard drive. Reads and writes CDs and DVDs. WiFi and Ethernet. FM tuner. 3 USB ports, one FireWire port, Bluetooth. Memory-card slot, ExpressCard slot. Webcam
* Tests: Battery lasted 2:03 during DVD playback, 2:31 during MP3 playback (as outlined above). Time to boot up and reach desktop screen: 1:06. Power consumption when on: 62 watts. "Windows Experience Index" score: 3.4

So which of these four machines would I buy? None, actually -- but my next laptop has to be an ultralight that emphasizes battery life above performance, not a general-purpose machine like these four.

But if I had to pick out a machine to suggest to a college student or somebody else looking to buy a laptop for actual on-the-go use, I would have some difficulty handing out a recommendation.

It should not be a secret that I prefer Mac OS X Leopard to Windows Vista, but the MacBook is no longer the best exhibit of Apple's talents. This computer looks to be at the wrong end of a common life cycle for Apple products: First the company ships a new and brilliant gadget that makes other companies look silly, then it lets that advantage erode as the design ages and competitors cut their prices -- until Apple finally ships some new and brilliant upgrade that makes other companies look silly.

The Dell Inspiron 1318, by contrast, offers a ludicrously good price, and when it appears on Dell's Web site in customizable form later this month you'll be able to fix minor defects like its relatively limited memory by making a few changes to its default setup. You just have to be able to deal with Windows Vista.

The HP is a harder machine to recommend, even if you order up a more sensible and affordable configuration than the one I reviewed. This model features some genuinely thoughtful hardware design, but its software bundle does not seem to have benefited from the same thought.

The Toshiba could be a fine machine after a purge of its own software bundle, but I can't assume that most users will get around to that.

Now I'll turn the microphone over to you all: If a friend asked what laptop to get for on-the-go use, what would you suggest?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  August 14, 2008; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Computers , Mac , Windows  
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Comments

users are not bound to the OS that the laptop comes pre-loaded with. You can easily purchase an XP pro license for the Vista machines, or use a Linux distro (Ubuntu for example is user friendly and designed for the inexperienced Linux user, and it is free). The problem with laptops are they are becoming increasingly the same internal components with different branding on the outside. If you want a true portability and long battery life look at the Lenovo x300 series with a SSD drive (costly but worth it for long term power usage). They are lightweight (sub 3lbs) and well worth the slight bump in $$.

Posted by: bgagnon | August 14, 2008 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I think the Latitude line of laptops from Dell (business, not consumer) are quite durable, customizable, and have some good accessories available. Save money by ordering from the Outlet or even the Off lease models. Still easy to get XP if you want.

Posted by: JkR | August 14, 2008 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I think you are looking at wrong laptops. Personally, I have a used pentium 3 thinkpad, 15" screen, 640MB, stuck in a flash drive, completely silent and uses very little power (

Posted by: David | August 14, 2008 11:46 AM | Report abuse

somehow the rest of my comment got lost... a computer based on an atom, a used centrino in a quality notebook, or a low power AMD cpu would be best sort of match to your requirements.

Posted by: david | August 14, 2008 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Seeing these I don't understand why you excluded the ThinkPad T series. I just checked and you can get a 14-inch T61 configured about the same as the Dell for less than the MacBook. The big difference being the better overall design and attention to detail on the ThinkPad.

Posted by: William | August 14, 2008 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Also check out the new Sony VAIO Z series, which has a 13.3-inch screen and weighs 3.5 lbs. with an integrated DVD burner. You can get one without the bloatware by ordering a custom model through SonyStyle. The 2 Dells I had in the past had multiple hardware failures over time, but I expect Dell has probably improved since then.

Posted by: rsdk | August 14, 2008 12:29 PM | Report abuse

If you can afford it, the new MacBook Air, no question. Light, fast, good battery life, plus all the Mac goodies (including the new touchpad that works like the iPhone/iPod Touch).

Posted by: briand | August 14, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

All cynicism aside, I was looking forward to the laptop column since I'm looking to buy a laptop for home. We have a desktop and my spouse works 3 days a week at home on his laptop but now our kids are competing for time on the desktop.

I was looking at the Dell Inspiron 1525. Specs: 15.4-in. screen, 5.9 lbs., 2 GHz Intel processor, 3 GB memory, 250 GB hard drive. DVD+/-RW Drive. WiFi and Ethernet. 2 USB ports. Starts at $783.

It sounds pretty good. The desktop uses XP but it comes with Vista and we're looking for PowerPoint, which we both use a lot of, and need to figure out how to get our Norton software to cover it.

Even though you don't say it, what would be your next machine?

Posted by: cab91 | August 14, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm just wondering why you didn't include the Msi Wind, Asus Eee PC, and the Acer Aspire One? They are all lightweight laptops and much cheaper than any of the models that you suggested. This is indeed the time when most students begin searching for a replacement for the new school year, so wouldn't price and functionality be major factors????

Posted by: Liz | August 14, 2008 1:17 PM | Report abuse

exaclty

Posted by: noname | August 14, 2008 1:24 PM | Report abuse

You should have featured a sublaptop in comparison to the aforementioned machines. Specifically for their cost effectiveness and lightweight portability.

The Acer Aspire One is fairly bad ass, with slightly reduced specs compared to your laptops but with one important feature: a $400 price tag tax in.

Posted by: Recommendations | August 14, 2008 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I can't help people pick PC laptops anymore. I just cannot live with myself recommending someone buy something running Vista. So, Macs FTW!

Most of my family and friends are slowly converting over. The newest convert is my brother--his new MacBook is waiting in the box at home for me to set up when he gets back from travel.

The reviewed laptops I think are in a general-purpose category for someone who only wants one computer. For the power user who already owns a full desktop and needs something more mobile, I think either the MacBook Air or the Eee PC running Linux are good choices. Smartphones are also worth considering, depending on the needs.

Posted by: BR | August 14, 2008 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Hey Rob, do you ever test the sound cards on these? You should hook up a normal set of earbuds and see how noisy the headphone jack is on each one.

You should also talk about how the wireless functions on the laptop are enabled and disabled. Is it a Fn+F* keystroke, a physical switch, a menu item, ... and how well is it labelled? Even better: show each laptop to a lay coworker of yours and, with the wireless already turned off, ask him/her to get the laptop connected to a wireless network; time the process and don't give any hints (you could make them call tech support and include that time if they can't figure it out on their own). Make sure they already know how to do the setup within Vista otherwise the first one tested will take longer than it should. For kicks, get someone who's never used a Mac before to figure it out on the MacBook, that way your subject has the knowledge level of the average computer user.

(I've worked with people who accidentally flick the wireless switch in transport then wonder why they can't connect to wireless networks anymore, they never even knew it was there!)

Posted by: BR | August 14, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I opted for the cheapest laptop I could find with a 15" screen. Ended up with a Toshiba (A210) and after tweaking the power settings (to prevent random blackouts), I am very happy with it. I only paid $600 for it. Given the speed at which more powerful computers are being released at lower and lower cost per GB these days, it doesn't make sense to buy anything more than you really need. At this rate, I can get a new one every year or two without killing my budget. I will admit to not using it for serious gaming or video/audio editing. However, for most people, this would be a great computer.

Posted by: Peter | August 14, 2008 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Definitely definitely I would take my kid to a used laptop / reconditioned store or website and invite them to choose just ANYTHING that costs all the way up to $700 with taxes all in. :))))

If I'm buying for myself - business traveller, boring games and very modest video card needs - I cannot recommend the Lenovo / IBM Thinkpad x series highly enough. I only will buy thinkpads now after about 10 years of laptop experience, and I got an X41 (about three years old?) for $600 with docking station and XP pre-installed. I'm pretty sure this thing will never die as Thinkpads are tanks. I gave my old laptops to work and we still use them for trade shows (a very nice linux operating system and an internet connection).

Laptops are so well understood and reasonably built now, and the market so saturated, that it makes no sense to go and get a new one unless you have cash to burn. You can shop carefully and find some great deals in the used stores.

Posted by: Ted K | August 14, 2008 8:22 PM | Report abuse

Definitely definitely I would take my kid to a used laptop / reconditioned store or website and invite them to choose just ANYTHING that costs all the way up to $700 with taxes all in. :))))

If I'm buying for myself - business traveller, boring games and very modest video card needs - I cannot recommend the Lenovo / IBM Thinkpad x series highly enough. I only will buy thinkpads now after about 10 years of laptop experience, and I got an X41 (about three years old?) for $600 with docking station and XP pre-installed. I'm pretty sure this thing will never die as Thinkpads are tanks. I gave my old laptops to work and we still use them for trade shows (a very nice linux operating system and an internet connection).

Laptops are so well understood and reasonably built now, and the market so saturated, that it makes no sense to go and get a new one unless you have cash to burn. You can shop carefully and find some great deals in the used stores.

Posted by: Ted K | August 14, 2008 8:23 PM | Report abuse

Ahhh, the ThinkPad X21 with media slice - light, fast enough to do pretty much anything (with Ubuntu and OpenOffice), just needs an external WiFi card. Cheao when I bought it (7 years ago) and still more than enough for browsing the web, playing games, watching vids on aircraft. Whenever work gets me a new laptop it sits on my desk as they seem to think I want a 15 lb tank with a massive display - the replacement *is* the desktop... :)

Posted by: BobSlub | August 14, 2008 8:45 PM | Report abuse

toshiba portege R500
look no further.

Posted by: eugene | August 14, 2008 9:08 PM | Report abuse

WARNING:
Never buy a Toshiba laptop.
Never buy a Toshiba laptop.
Never buy a Toshiba laptop.
Never buy a Toshiba laptop.

Buying a Toshiba Satellite was the WORST purchase I've ever made.

The HD crashed (fully-completely, no return) within the first 2 months. And the replacement did the same 10 months later.

The fan was garbage and the chip to hot and it overheated (to the point of powering off) constantly.

It collected centimeters of dust internally by the minute (and I never took it outside).

The screen lasted the longest... about 17 months. Now I have to "fiddle" with it to make it work.

Never buy a Toshiba laptop.

Posted by: lazysupper | August 14, 2008 9:35 PM | Report abuse


After seeing my son's new HP Pavilion with Vista on it, I'd strongly recommend the Mac. Vista is ssllooww.

BTW, I just spent 45 minutes on hold waiting for HP support, and they will email you instructions on how to install XP on a Vista computer if you ask.

Posted by: Wayne | August 14, 2008 9:44 PM | Report abuse

I bought a 17" toshiba P100-MA6 for $697 almost a year ago. intel core 2 duo T7200, 2gb ram, 200Gb HDD, 256mb Nvidia 7600 dedicated video card, Harmon Kardon speakers, REMOVED vista and installed XP, which was the single biggest boost to its performance. Windows Experience Rating was 4.2. The laptop is a beast and I haven't had any problems. It's fast enough to be considered a desktop replacement, quick enough to game on, though I have an intel core 2 quad home built desktop for that. From my experience give a Toshiba as much consideration as any other manufacturer. I've been nothing but happy with mine, and I'm a serious cynic.

Posted by: larockus | August 14, 2008 9:51 PM | Report abuse

Well, Rob, I agree the MacBook needs a refurbish -- the one I'm typing this on is 2 years old and looks JUST the same as the 3 month old one sitting next to it. Fortunately, both run perfectly. Well, they ARE Macs (the Hondas -- Lexus? -- of laptops), afterall.

There is, however, a reason MacBooks are now the #1 machine on college campuses: for the price (and price-over-lifetime of machine), they're hard to beat. With computers, you definitely get what you pay for. Further, the flexibility of running XP or *shudder* Vista natively on the box (ANY OS can run virtualization software, now, so we won't mention that) is a huge advantage over the other brands' offerings.

And for the person who asked why Rob didn't review an EEE-alike for this column: we know from past articles how little Rob enjoyed the EEE; it's unlikely he'd revisit them again, no matter how much we excoriated him for dissing our beloved little white machines.

Cheers!
Bush -- not related
(who also is waiting for the early Fall release of Apple's newly refurbished MacBook line)

Posted by: Bush -- not related | August 15, 2008 12:32 AM | Report abuse

I just purchased a Gateway T6836 that's on sale for only $599 at Best Buy right now. Intel T5750 (2GHz), 4Gb DDR2-667, 250GB HDD, DVD-RW, web-cam, Vista 64-bit. The only down side is the Intel integrated graphics, but if you're not using it for gaming, that's irrelavent. All in all a VERY powerful laptop for the price. It even looks good, with a dark blue color.

Posted by: hokiealumnus | August 15, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse

I'm a little surprised you didn't choose one of the Sony's for this review. I have a Sony SZ series laptop. 13.3" screen, weighs about 3.75 lbs. I got it refurbished for about $1200 early last year. I love it. It's nice and light for carrying around and it is not a drag to actually use it on my lap while I sit on the couch watching TV.

Posted by: Glenn | August 15, 2008 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Forgot to point out that the Gateway mentioned (T6836) has a 14.1" screen.

Posted by: hokiealumnus | August 15, 2008 3:34 PM | Report abuse

The Think Pad is definately the way to go. And very good config.s for less than 1k. The Apple Air is nice, but too expensive for the lack of some feratures. If you want a little more expensive, the Toughbook is the best out there.

Posted by: Mike | August 15, 2008 3:43 PM | Report abuse

The Asus EEE (about $350) does almost anything that most users need, and is smaller and more rugged than most notebooks (storage is on cards, not on a harddrive). Most traditional notebooks are as powerful as a mid range server a few years back, and most of that power is wasted. With a replacement battery running $100 for the typical notebook, you are looking at 30% of the cost of a replacement that will be just as useful, weigh less, and be a lot less likely to be damaged when dropped.

Posted by: Harrison | August 15, 2008 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Re: Toshiba. I have a Satellite A104. It is probably 4 years old. It has traveled in my backpack across the USA a couple times a year. Absolutely NO problems with this machine. The earlier commenter obviously got a very bad machine. But my experience with 3 Toshiba laptops over the years says they are bug-free and dependable laptops.

Posted by: Frank | August 15, 2008 6:13 PM | Report abuse

edited

Thanks for the comments, all! To answer some questions raised above:

* I didn't look at the Eee PC (here's my review) or other ultralights because they're not going to work as primary computers. I mean, at least not with the tiny keyboards and screens most offer. Not that I won't continue to pay attention to this category, in the hope that one of these will turn out to be the perfect machine to take to CES.

* I picked the brands that I did review because, last I checked, they're the four most popular makes of laptop in the U.S. consumer market--in other words, the companies that readers are most likely to ask about.

* For the person who asked about WiFi on/off switches: The Apple doesn't have physical buttons or switches, just software controls. The Toshiba and the HP have little sliding switches on the front, but neither are the kind that you could flip accidentally. The Dell, however, arguably does get this wrong: It has a small switch near the right front corner, where you can easily knock it from "off" to "on" if you're taking the computer out of a bag.

(Sorry, missed this Dell feature the first time around. It's that non-obvious.)

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | August 15, 2008 6:28 PM | Report abuse

I would probably recommend either a Dell or a Macbook to some one depending on their PC or Apple loyalty. Mind you I am not exactly pleased with my Macbook Pro (Core Duo not Core Duo II) right now and would be likely to lean towards recommending a Dell, despite my ingrained hatred of Vista. The logic board in my Macbook pro is failing for the third time in three years. First my ability to keep the battery charged fails (I am at 30 minutes before a fully charged battery dies) and then soon after I start having problems with the screen. I am not sure what is wrong, whether I am using it more than intended or there is some flaw in the way the computer is designed. All that being said newer versions and also the lower end Macbooks don't seem to have this problem and remain good computers.

Posted by: That Guy | August 15, 2008 9:11 PM | Report abuse

I recommend the MacBook. So what if the design is a bit old? It's a machine for crying out loud! For people on a budget who need price/performance, MacBook is definitely good value and let's not forget the Mac OS X advantage over you know what.

Posted by: NJ Analyst | August 15, 2008 9:50 PM | Report abuse

I bought an HP Pavilion dv6000 last year with 2 gb of RAM and XP in place of Vista. I love it. It's super quick and can handle my crazy multi-tasking. I would highly recommend it or any similar HP model, and of course would recommend XP over Vista any doggone day. :)

Posted by: Natalie | August 16, 2008 12:10 AM | Report abuse

Everyone likes to make the Macbook seem like God's gift to humans. I would say if you want to see all of the problems that these "badboys" are having, go into an apple store and sit by the genius bar awhile. The most alarming issue I have seen are dead logic boards. What does this mean? Well in about a year (after standard warranty of course) the logic board suddenly dies, and the computer comes up with that sick little mac computer symbol or the monitor fails to even come on. None of the regular troubleshooting works and the logic board has to be replaced...at a cost of ~$700. That's right... $700. You should get AppleCare right? Well live in a humid state and see that go right out the window as its little "sensor" that looks for water damage is signaled due to the extended use in a humid environment. So this $700 comes out of pocket. Just food for thought on these machines, completely made in China and do not have the quality standards as previous versions. Vista really isn't as bad as everyone says. Just don't put it on a slow machine. Get any cheap computer and put Linux on it if you don't want Windows. The option isn't to pay more for a Mac, it's free and looking at you everyday, and looks like a penguin.

Posted by: tom | August 16, 2008 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I would first rule out anything that runs Windoze. Although my primary notebook is a MacBook Pro, I often travel with a Sony Vaio SZ machine (4 pounds or so) running Ubuntu Linux (Hardy Heron). I've tried the HP MiniNote 2133 running SuSE Linux -- the keyboard is good, but there's no update mechanism, which makes it unsuitable. I'm waiting on an MSI Wind 10" machine running Linux, which should probably arrive in September.

Posted by: TonyW | August 17, 2008 3:06 AM | Report abuse

Ultralights can be type on effectively with a new single handed keyboard, the EkaPad.

Posted by: GeorgeF | August 18, 2008 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Hi Rob,
it all depends what you want to do with a laptop.

If weight is more important than speed, memory or storage, then the smaller laptops might be just what the doctor ordered.

Yes, the screens are smaller. But a new one is supposed to come out this month with a 9.5" (or is it 10.5"?) screen, a usable keyboard, at least 12 GB storage and either Linux or XP.

Best of all: it weighs around 2lbs!!!!! (And is much smaller too!!!)

To the best of my knowledge, the price is supposed to be around $500.

Posted by: Norman | August 19, 2008 4:45 AM | Report abuse

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