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07/30/2005: "laptop thoughts"

I've been in contact with the university, and hopefully I should know whether I'm doing a year of school or looking for a new job sometime next week. It's getting down to the wire - the program starts on September 12th - and there's lots of ground to cover between now and then. I have to confirm that my parents are willing and able to front the tuition, I have to arrange some kind of loan that will cover my family's living expenses between the start of school and when I can next find employment, and I have to figure out what computer I'm going to get. Over the past couple of days, it's this latter issue that has been at the forefront of my mind.

Normally, I'd think that shopping for a computer would be a fairly easy task - go see what's available, decide what features you actually need, see if there's any deals to be had, and buy something, right? I wish it were that easy. Were I still content to use PCs that might be the case, but now that I've gone over to the Mac side, I really don't want to go back at all, if I can ever help it.

(I'm really looking forward to the Intel-based Macs that are due out in 2007. From what I've been reading, they will not only be able to run OS X, but any other Intel-based operating system as well. This means that I can finally realize my long-held dream of being able to run the CAD software I use for my work on a Mac. Now, if they'll only port it so I can run it natively in OS X...)

So I'm on a budget, need a laptop, and Apple's the only game I want to play. My options are thereby kinda limited. I can buy a brand-new PowerBook G4 for $1889 (all funds in loonies) and have the baby brother to my wife's laptop. Alternatively, I can give up some speed and get the equally capable G4 iBook for $1249. That's still quite a chunk of cheddar, but I'm hopeful that I'd be able to qualify for the Apple business lease, which would turn a 4-figure purchase into 24 much smaller, more manageable monthly payments. I could also do the educational discount thing, but that only lops a paltry $50 off the cost of the iBook. Woo-hoo.

Of course, there is the fact that my wife has a perfectly good 15" PowerBook G4 that is just barely 6 months old. Assuming I can sweet-talk her and show her the logic of the situation, I might be able to use that and simply purchase her a replacement computer for her use over the next 10 months. I have my old monitor from my PC in the basement, so it's been suggested (thanks RH) that I buy the uber-affordable Mac mini for $629, borrow a Mac keyboard (thanks RH), purchase a mouse, and voila, brand-new Mac for use at home. (As the minis have been recently updated, there are a limited number of older models that are retailing for around the $599 mark, if I wanted to shave my costs down even more.)

The only problem with that idea is that the PowerBook was my wife's birthday present from her parents, and thus she may not be as open to the idea of passing it over to me for nearly a year as I'd like to hope she would be. Fair enough, it's hers. I realize that at some points sentiment will trump other priorities (in this case, financial), and likely this will be one of those times. I won't really complain all that much - after all, it means that she'll keep her computer, and then I'll have *mine* too!

One avenue I'm very seriously considering is going for a used computer. In the PC laptop world, that would be totally unthinkable to me. So many brands, so many different combinations... doing any proper research would be exhausting, and likely not get you very far. With Apple computers, it's different. (No pun intended, really.) Aside from some Apple clone desktops many years back (which are now too old to even be considered as a desktop option, were I going that route) only Apple produced Apple computers. Thereby, the product history is relatively simple, and is quite well documented. One site that has been my primary resource in researching older laptops is Low End Mac. From there, my laptop search really got started.

I'm just guessing, but I'm assuming that all I'll need a laptop for is Internet access, word processing, and possibly presentations. That really doesn't call for all that much power, so I allowed myself to explore back in time a bit farther than I would otherwise. What I found was the G3 PowerBook, specifically the last incarnation thereof that went by the code name Pismo. Although being relatively old - the series was introduced in 1997, and the Pismo in 2000 - it seems to have an excellent record of being a reliable, durable machine. What's more, it's processor upgradable. So for under $700 (used Apples keep their value quite well) I could get a high-end Pismo, and for another $300 upgrade it to the current generation processor. Either way, it will quite happily run the latest version of OS X. But if you've done the math as I did, an upgraded Pismo comes scarily close to the price of a newer portable - something that will likely come with a much higher bus speed, more standard RAM, a bigger hard drive, etc., etc. It is precisely this reason that I'm no longer considering a Pismo.

So, what am I considering? Lots. There are new-in-box G4 iBooks on eBay that I'm watching. A great Canadian used Mac site that goes by has some interesting TiBooks, which are newer (2001-2002) G4 PowerBooks that were made with a titanium outer casing. I don't know why, but titantium really turns my crank. It would be super cool to own one of those. Of course, there are the iBooks as well, any of which from 2001 and on would likely suit my needs. In other words, I don't really know what I want at this point. I have ruled out the Pismo, but anything newer than that is fair game at this point. I think I have to sit down and decide which features are more important, for example perhaps I should forego getting a TiBook or 14" iBook and concentrate on the 12" screen portables, and put the savings from the smaller screen size in to RAM and hard drive capacity.

It would be a lot easier to decide if I knew two things: if I was getting into the program (of course), and if I had the spec sheet that they send out telling me what a laptop would need to do. Unfortunately, they are being reluctant to give me that information. They have acknowledged that it's getting "pretty late in the game" to not know my fate for September, so I've asked them to provide me the specs that I might pre-select a laptop in case I get in. Sadly, they don't seem to be going for it quite yet. Even without the spec sheet, I can't imagine anything (other than proprietary PC-only software) that would prevent me from using an Apple for this course.

Having said that, there was a flyer in today's paper from FutureShop (I think) that has a Toshiba notebook for $899. It has everything I'd need, including a DVD-R, half a gig of memory, huge hard drive... but running Windoze. Sigh. That's about the same price I'd pay for a low-end early TiBook. I suppose, barring the spec sheet requiring a PC laptop, that it's going to come down to whether I want to be as cheap as possible and get away with the basics, or whether I'll allow myself to spend more. Even then, I'll have to decide whether the more I spend will go to features (favouring a newer, cheaper PC laptop) or whether I'll simply be able to move up the Apple portable history. Only time will tell.

Replies: 10 Comments

on Saturday, July 30th, Jerry said

It's really hard to buy Apple economically... if price is your first priority, it would probably be safest to just get a PC notebook.

Either way, good luck -- I hope you find something good, and I hope you get in to the program...


on Saturday, July 30th, Robert Hahn said

Jerry, I personally think a PC is more expensive than a Mac. Sure, the initial outlay is less, but if you factor in the additional time spent removing spyware and viruses from your PC periodically, then it's not such a sweet deal. I don't know about you, but my time is worth money. Spending that time doing maintenance that's not required on OS X is thowing money out the window.

Likewise, Ska here is going to be on a tight timeline, researching, and writing up his homework etc. If his machine goes down, and it takes him an evening or two to get it back up to speed, then that cheap investment cost him a lot of time, and will negatively affect his grade.

So: safest to get a PC notebook? I think not. Safest to spend an extra hundred or two (that's only 2-4hrs of billable work for a professional) and get something that'll save far more time over the next year.

on Sunday, July 31st, mr.ska said

JGH - I understand what you're saying. However, I simply don't like PCs anymore... Scratch that. I simply don't like Windows as compared to OS X, and thus will only buy a PC if there is an overwhelming price differential. I'm not finding that new, and I would never, ever consider a used laptop that wasn't an Apple (unless someone showed me broad and in-depth documentation to the contrary, as Apple portables have).

Nothing's written in stone yet, but I have my preferences. We'll see what the university's specs have to say about my ability to keep my preferences.

on Tuesday, August 2nd, Kevin said

The education discount does kinda stink. But I believe they do have a promotion on right now where if you buy a qualifying Mac you get a free iPod mini. Could keep it or ebay it for a couple hunded dollars.

on Tuesday, August 2nd, Kevin said

A link might help:

on Tuesday, August 2nd, mr.ska said

Hey, that's pretty sweet. Thanks Kev, I missed that deal. As good a deal as it is, it'll have to compete against some good eBay deals I've found, but the iPod brings it a lot closer.

on Tuesday, August 2nd, mr.ska said

Wait... you first have to buy both a computer and the iPod, then they'll send you a $225 rebate. So, I'd actually have to spend MORE first.

Unless I can find someone that wants an iPod (at a reduced price) I don't think I'd bother.

on Tuesday, August 2nd, Jerry said

Hey Rob...

Jerry, I personally think a PC is more expensive than a Mac. Sure, the initial outlay is less, but if you factor in the additional time spent removing spyware and viruses from your PC periodically, then it's not such a sweet deal. I don't know about you, but my time is worth money. Spending that time doing maintenance that's not required on OS X is thowing money out the window.

Which is why you set it up right in the first place, and you never ever get the spyware and viruses. (8-) I automatically run a virus check every week at 4am, and I run a spyware check whenever I feel like it -- and I never find anything. (Usually an errant cookie or two, if that.)

The BSD kernel that powers OS X is more secure inherently, but, is no more or no less vulnerable to malicious software. It's just that software writers don't target that OS because its distribution is so limited. You have to remember, for example, the worst ever virus in history until last year was "The Internet Worm", which spread solely among UNIX boxes. Buffer overruns are buffer overruns, and malicious software is malicious software -- it doesn't matter what OS you're running. The only true defence is knowledge -- and if you have that, you can easily secure any OS to an average level. (You're right in that the Linux kernel would be much easier to harden -- but if you need that type of protection, you shouldn't be being off the shelf stuff anyway.)

That being said, I've got no problems with OS X as an operating system, except cost -- and cost seems to be the driving factor behind Andrew's concerns right now. The price differential is pretty significant, for comparable performance. If you buy at same prices, the PC laptop is going to be faster.

Besides, if you're really worried about security, buy a PC laptop and put Red Hat (or another flavour of Linux) on it. Same underlying kernel as OS X, but, being developed more actively and with less of the teething problems I'v heard some OS X applications have had.

I guess what I'm saying is this Andrew: if having a Mac is that important to you, just spend the money and be comfortable. They're perfectly fine machines. If the money really is that important, bite the bullet and buy the PC. There exist free programs and tools to give it a 'Mac' like feel, if you really want that -- or install a free distro of Linux on it and get the best of both worlds.


on Tuesday, August 2nd, Jerry said

BTW -- as a billable professional, for friends, I work for cookies. (8-)


on Wednesday, August 3rd, mr.ska said

I'd give you some cookies, but you need to turn off your anti-spyware software first. 8-D

Cost is a factor, yes. Speed? Perhaps not so much so. I'm likely not going to be doing any 3-D rendering ("Once, if I hurry.") but accessing CDs, word processing, and the like.

I think the big factor is the simple fact that we already have a Mac at home. If I get another Mac, any software I buy for it we'll be able to use on the other Mac, and vice versa.

We'll see. I'm pragmatic above all, but you have to admit Macs are nice.

The one PC I am considering is the Toshiba M40X. I can find it for $899. Thoughts? Opinions?

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