Laptops – A Tech’s View

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A view from the inside – Zach Johnson

I work as a ResNet technician at my university. Every day, we get a
whole slew of different machines coming in for problems ranging from
AIM not working to the whole computer not working. In my two years
there, I’ve come to a single conclusion about laptops:

EVERY laptop maker has serious problems with reliability and quality.

The laptops I see most frequently in the Res are HPs and Dells (not
surprisingly). I’d say that maybe 80% of those have desktop Celerons
and desktop Pentium 4 processors in them, and I’d say that maybe 50% of
those have overheating problems. Those aren’t good statistics . . .

Overheating has a range of definitions, though – ranging from loud,
annoying fans, having to prop the laptop up on something to allow
adequate airflow to fans that are stupidly placed facing down toward
the desk, to literally leaving a red burn mark on a girl.

One facet of overheating that a lot of people don’t consider are the
secondary failures associated with heat – everyone knows that it will
get really hot, really loud and sometimes even shut down. Only a
few know that this heat buildup is frying hard drives left and right.

These same HPs and Dells that overheat end up needing new hard drives
because the old one is literally clicking, or the data is corrupt, or the
hard drive simply isn’t detected at all.

Therefore, my word of advice on laptop purchases:

IF you need one, get one with a MOBILE processor, and be prepared for
issues anyway.

Laptops are abused because they’re small and portable. People pick
them up to get a piece of paper out from under the computer and then
just let it drop back down to the desk. They sling it around in their
backpacks, they spill soda on it, etc. They’re just not the best

Unless you actually NEED the portability, go with a desktop.

Most students find that they don’t need a laptop for school work, and
I’d say that for most students, the only good reason to have a laptop
is so they don’t hurt their back when coming down to ResNet to get it

Now please don’t assume that just the above two brands are bad – they’re
just the largest makers of computers, so a lot of people have them. We
get Sony and a smattering of everything else as well. We even see a
few Apples, though only one or two for hardware problems.

So what are my recommendations?

  1. If it’s big, thick, offers every feature under the sun, and has a
    desktop processor in it – forget about it. There’s a reason why these
    are so cheap.

  2. If your student or sibling or grandmother spends the majority of
    their time writing papers and checking email, you don’t need top of the
    line on every component. The Celeron M (based on the Pentium M) is a
    large step up from the Celerons of old.

  3. Make sure you get 512 MB of RAM. This is another way that
    manufacturers make laptops cheap, and this is why laptops get so slow.
    They’re hobbled with 4200 rpm hard drives, so swapping to disk is not
    something you want your laptop to do.

  4. Pentium M, Celeron M, G4 and Pentium 4m simply don’t overheat
    unless something is broken. Buy these.

    I’ve had quite a few unpleasant experiences with AMD Athlon XPm
    based laptops as well. HP is pretty much the only manufacturer of
    these, but they get just as hot as desktop Pentium 4s for some reason I
    can’t explain.

  5. Make sure you need a laptop – you’d be surprised how many people
    really don’t.

  6. Check to make sure that, if this is for a college student, the
    university doesn’t offer antivirus software. If they do, you don’t
    need to buy any for the laptop and it won’t expire in six months.

  7. Give the person a quick tutorial on antivirus and antispyware
    checks so that they can do them on their own. This will keep them out
    of the local ResNet and out of your hair.

Please also note that there are exceptions to these rules – Certain
laptops with desktop processors never overheat, and certain
Centrino-based laptops get quite hot (they don’t overheat, but their
hard drives die). I don’t mean to single Dell out, as they probably
represent more than 50% of purchases at my school, but I’ve seen more
Dells with bad hard drives than I can count.

Lastly, remember that computers fail – I’ve had a bad experience with
probably every major and minor brand that can be purchased in the
United States. This doesn’t mean they’re all bad.

Zach Johnson (zachj in the forums)

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