Posted by: Harold Ennulat | March 8, 2010

On Buying A New Laptop Computer

Anyone else recently purchase a new laptop computer? Anyone thinking about such a purchase? I was very pleasantly surprised by how much computing power can be purchased at a price point unheard of not so many years ago.

Finding myself joining the growing numbers of unemployed and trying to use an old computer to do my job searching and networking, I determined that a new machine was in order. (My wife soon said it was OK too).

First I determined that I needed a laptop computer. This will allow me to use the computer for doing some independent controls work, even as I explore more permanent work.

Next, which laptop? I haven’t shopped for laptops in about 5 years for myself. After considering a “business” laptop, I decided to try and save some money and get a “consumer” level laptop. Also I already decided that Windows 7 was a must, so I could learn the latest operating system, likely to soon be used in control applications. A 64 bit machine also seemed prudent. I struggled with the processor but soon decided that it needed to be one of the newer “i” series processors. Prices for these machines started at $600 and went up from there. After looking at all kinds of laptops up to about $1300, I stopped and decided that there just wasn’t enough difference between a $600 machine and a $1300 machine to warrant spending anymore then the $600 for the base level machine.

So what do you get for $600? Plenty! A 64 bit Intel i3 processor with 2 cores and 2 threads on each core (like having 4 separate areas for programs to run) running at 2.13 GHz, 4 GB of DDR3 RAM running at 1066 MHz (expandable to 8 GB), a 500 GB drive, a 13.1 to 17.3 inch display with a resolution of at least 1378 x 768 with ability to support a second monitor, A CD/DVD writer, wired network card, wireless b/g/n network card, and lots of ports (USB, HDMI).

The computer I wanted to get was a Sony VAIO. Best Buy had one advertised for $800 with a BlueRay Player / DVD/CD writer, but this was sold out. The reason the Sony VAIO was of interest was that it was the only laptop where I could not find a single review of anyone having any kind of trouble with it or otherwise having any big complaints. The next price point for the VAIO was at over $900 and I decided that was too much when other units were available for $600. Looking back the Sony may have been a better choice….

Click To Enlarge

Gateway NV7915u

What I ended up getting with was a Gateway (now owned by Acer) NV7915u laptop. In addition to the specs mentioned previously it came with a 17.3 inch 1600 x 900 display with the ability to support an external monitor up to 2500 x 1280 resolution due to its fixed and shared video memory. This makes the display on this computer unique among all the other displays at this price point. The down side of the display is that even small viewing angle changes, change the display appearance quite noticeably. This I learned is typical of the laptops in this price range at least. Battery life is only in the 2 hour range, but I can easily live with that for now at least.

I was stunned by how much computing power you can buy for $600! Especially since every PC I purchased since before the IBM PC always seemed to end up costing me around $1200 before getting the kind of performance and features I felt were needed.

This laptop should allow me to easily run the most demanding CAD and Control applications with ease, likely for many years to come. I plan to install Visual Studio 2010 RC which as I mentioned in a previous post is available for free till April 11th.

Tips for shopping for a new computer: For Anyone else looking to purchase a new laptop I would offer this: Do the research. I used Google, and Best Buy was great for comparing computers. I reviewed about 30 of 150 laptops on their site with anywhere from 8 – 50 or more reviews from people who purchased these computers giving excellent summaries of the good, the bad, and the ugly on each machine. This is most helpful in going in with both eyes open when purchasing a new PC. Also, since Best Buy has many of the computers they sell on line, in their store, you can test drive some basic parts of each machine, such as looks, sturdiness, ease of typing and using the mouse on the screen and such. This helped me to eliminate an HP model because the mouse kept moving around on its own…. Most annoying…. Don’t want that! Finally compare the in store pricing with the on line pricing. I found it $30 cheaper to shop on line even though I picked up the computer the next day from the same store. They clearly took a computer from stock in the store.

_________________________________________________________________

Sony VAIO VPCEB15FX/WI

Update: March 9th: This week a new Sony VAIO showed up on the market and is on sale at OfficeMax for $569 and $699 with the latter including a blue ray player and larger hard drive (320 vss. 500 GB). I am returning the Gateway and will pay the $90 restocking fee and still pay less then the $800 I was willing to pay earlier. My impression is that for usability, the VAIO will be a better productivity tool for me when used as is (without external keyboard, etc). The 15.5″ screen is a better size for portability reasons, battery life should be improved, and the keyboard has spaces around the keys (unlike the Gateway) that keep me from hitting 2 keys at once) that I can see will speed my workflow when using the built in keyboard. The Sony (a Sony VAIO® E Series Notebook PC VPCEB15FX/WI) also sports a VGA, HDMI, 3 USB ports, and an eSATA port for high speed direct access to eSATA hard drives. I don’t have any external eSATA drives at the moment, but it’s a nice benefit if I want to speed up performance even further. This Sony had a performance rating of 4.6 verses 4.5 for the Gateway laptop so performance is basically the same. The screens on all these laptops (at least in this price range) all suffer from color changes with relatively slight viewing angle changes. Finally the display on the Sony also tips back a bit further so this can help when standing over the laptop or get more vivid colors in some situations. (I have found that I wanted the Gateway lid to open a bit more at times to get a better view of the display).

Update: March 11th: I want to add some kudos to Best Buy. Yesterday I returned the computer and was pleasantly surprised to learn that they do not charge a restocking fee in spite of their written policy. I tried to return the favor by buying the same (Sony) machine from them instead, but they were not available. Overall it was a very positive customer experience. After getting home I opened the Sony box (from OfficeMax) and am writing this update on the Sony VAIO. So far nothing but kudos for Sony. Right now my biggest complaint is that all of the USB ports are on the right side of the laptop which means one will often need access to both sides of the laptop for cables. My battery meter makes it look like battery life may not be a whole lot better then the Gateway. The rating is 3.5 hours however. Replacement batteries are around $200 from Sony. Hopefully they’ll be less when I need a replacement. I’m loving the display and the “smaller” size.

Update: May 3rd: I have been using the Sony Vaio laptop now for over 6 weeks. It has proven to be a really good performer. I am running it with an external monitor connected to the HDMI port running at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 as well as the laptop monitor for an “extended display”. It works quite nice except I can’t quite use the Windows 7 feature of putting 2 documents quickly side by side by dragging each window to the edge of the display on the “extended” side because the displays are different sizes and resolutions. Performance is still very good. The resume feature works better then on any previous laptop. I can just put the laptop to sleep with a quick push on the power button and unplug the laptop and go. I have taken the laptop out all day and when I returned it still had 85% battery power remaining. This allows a lot of incidental usage before recharging is required. When I plug it back in at home all works and no rebooting is required. It is recommended to turn off the external monitor before plugging in the HDMI port which so far I’ve done. Haven’t run into any memory limitations running Microsoft office and explorer applications with lots of windows open… 27 right now… No problems…. Sometimes there is a bit of a freeze in taking keyboard input where the computer seems to freeze up for a few seconds that is different from what I experience on others Windows computers when an application gets busy. So far it does not happen often but when it does happen you can tell it just isn’t right. Otherwise all is going well. I haven’t run any controls or AutoCAD applications on this PC yet. I don’t expect any trouble with this, but it would be a much better test. So far still a very worthwhile investment.

Update: July 29th: I have noticed that now that I am needing to reboot if I need to switch from wired to wireless network connectivity when I grab the laptop off of my desk and take it on the road. I cann’t get it to find the wireless access points otherwise when I bring it out of sleep mode. I haven’t taken the time to figure out why this occurs or ways to mitigate this. (There is a wireless radio on/off switch on the laptop which I have been switching off when I don’t need it, this may have something to do with the issues I’m having, but I haven’t done any real testing).

Update: September 8th, 2010: I finally got to try using some controls software using this Windows 7 machine. Result: The Rockwell Activation software will not run on my Windows 7 machine. Such use is currently not supported for Windows 7 though they say they are working on it. The application specialist from the local supplier told me that she has successfully installed it on another Windows 7 machine. When we called Rockwell we were advised that they don’t why it works on some W7 machines and not on others. I was able to install and run a lite version of Allen Bradleys Micrologix programming software that was a free download and did not require any activation. I believe that RSLogix500 did run on my machine also but in a 7 day trial mode because of the activation problems. Due to the activation limitations I was unable to test any direct connection to a PLC using Windows 7 (downloading, online editing and the like).

I also tried and failed to load some ProSoft ProLinx configuration software.

I ended up pressing my wifes XP laptop into service… all worked fine there…

Updated: September 8, 2010 12:54pm | Published: March 8, 2010

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Responses

  1. Great post – I just forwarded this to a friend who is looking for a laptop.

    Do you have any updates after another 2 months of use? I use VMware a lot and this would be important to me on a laptop, especially having 4 GB of RAM. Have you tried any controls software – if so, does it run in a “32 bit” mode?

    • It’s still working great.

      I have noticed that now that I am needing to reboot if I need to switch from wired to wireless network connectivity when I grab the laptop off of my desk and take it on the road. I cann’t get it to find the wireless access points otherwise when I bring it out of sleep mode. I haven’t taken the time to figure out why this occurs or ways to mitigate this. (There is a wireless radio on/off switch on the laptop which I have been switching off when I don’t need it, this may have something to do with the issues I’m having, but I haven’t done any real testing).

      It runs all 32 bit software as well as 64 bit software. There are 2 “Program Files” folders in Windows 7, one for 64 bit and another for 32 bit applications.

      I still haven’t run any controls software yet. In the past, the main issue with running controls software has been in the areas of communications with the PLC such as using RSLinx. The softwares themselves will run to do your programming, etc…. at least that is what I’m expecting…

      I haven’t run VMWare. So far I’m just running Windows 7 in the native space.


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