A bleg for laptop advice, please

I’m in need of advice from those of my readers with greater technical and user expertise than mine in the field of laptop computers, please.

My present laptop is a fairly basic 2009 Gateway model (it’s really a re-badged Acer unit).  Its hard disk is starting to give errors on boot-up, requiring more and more frequent CHKDSK runs to resolve them – a sure sign that it needs to be replaced.  (Yes, I have good backups, both local and online!)  However, the computer has only USB 2.0 ports, and I’d like a couple of the much faster USB 3.0 ports for use with an external hard disk drive for backup and data transfer.  Also, it’s got a 15.6″ screen at 1366×768 resolution.  I’d like a larger screen for working with multiple documents, with higher resolution for better sharpness and less eyestrain during long periods of editing.  Finally, its 4GB of memory becomes overloaded when I have multiple documents open, plus a couple of dozen Web sites in browser tabs, plus e-mail, music and other programs.  I’m therefore looking at replacing the whole computer, rather than just the hard disk.

My problem is that there’s a massive price jump between low-end ‘consumer’ laptops and more sophisticated units.  On a disability income (until my book royalties improve to the point of providing a livable income stream) I find it hard to justify dropping a grand or more on a high-end unit when for half that sum, I can buy something that may be at least adequate for my current needs (albeit with the likelihood of having to upgrade or replace it within two to three years).  To illustrate the problem, here’s a comparison between three Acer units, one low-end and two rather more high-end (see below the graphic for links to each one).  All are supplied with Windows 8, but none has a touch-screen display.

From a technical perspective, I’d say the second or third unit is more suitable for what I need, and for long-term growth.  However, they’ll cost me double or more the price of the first unit.  My computer will be used primarily for writing, Internet browsing and blogging (including a limited amount of image processing – cutting, cropping, sizing, etc., but not Photoshop-type work), some YouTube viewing and occasional on-line movies, and simple single-player games to distract me when writing gets too frustrating.  For that sort of workload, are the more expensive units worth their much higher price?  I understand that I might have to upgrade or expand the lower-end unit within two to three years, but might I not have to do the same to the higher-end units anyway?  Technology is moving so fast that I’m not sure spending twice as much now will buy me twice as much ‘future-proofing’, if you know what I mean.

Battery life isn’t a major issue for me.  I seldom take my computer out of my office, although I do need to do that from time to time.  I’ll usually use it in hotel rooms or at friends’ homes, where a power socket is available.  I need 2-3 hours battery life at most, and these units will provide that.  A user-replaceable battery is a nice thing to have, if possible – I prefer not to have batteries that can only be replaced by the supplier.

Have I specified all the important bits and pieces above?  (For example, should I look for a touch-screen display if I want to get the most out of Windows 8?)  Also, what about a docking station or port replicator?  I presently attach external peripherals like keyboard, mouse, a 1TB HDD for backups, a larger monitor, etc. to my laptop when it’s at home.  I’ve plugged them into a USB 2.0 hub until now, but that’s definitely going to be a problem when I have a mix of USB 3.0 and 2.0 devices.  Is it worth investing a little in a universal docking station or port replicator like this one?  For less than $100, it looks like it might significantly extend my computer’s connectivity.

I’d be grateful for responses and suggestions from those who deal with these things more often, or at a more technical level, than I do.  If I really should buy one of the more expensive units, I’ll find a way (even if it means ramen for supper for a while), but I’m only going to do so if that’s essential.  Over to you, friends!  Let us know your reactions in Comments.  (I’m not necessarily committed to the Acer brand, either, so if you want to suggest alternatives to that, fire away.)




  1. For your described uses I would recommend the cheapest of the 3 you are looking at. The only spec that may be deficient for what you want is the screen resolution 1600×900 won't be as sharp as a full 1080p display. I would suggest that you plug in your USB 2 hub into the USB 2 port and use it for your mouse and keyboard. Pretty much the only thing that will benefit from the higher speed of the USB 3 ports is external storage.

    Windows 8 is designed with touch screens in mind but I don't think there are good reasons to buy one. It does more to unify tablet and laptop uses than improve the laptop side of things.

    If you were going to play video games I would suggest spending more, but nothing you mentioned should stress the cheapest machine.

  2. In my opinion, the lower cost computer would be fine. The i3 processor is not a bad processor for what you need. The major difference would be the screen resolution and only you can decide if it's worth the money to get one of the higher priced computers. If you're not sure, I would try to look at them side by side to see the difference.
    As for Win 8, I use it at home without a touch screen. The new apps do not make much sense on a desktop. To make win 8 more useable for me, I installed classic shell (free) and modernmix ($5). Modern mix lets you run the new win 8 apps in desktop mode, making them, at least for me, usable. You can get a trial of modern mix.

  3. Peter,
    Look at the HP Elitebooks.
    You can find a "last years model" with an i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and HD resolution for between $500-$800.
    Added bonus is that most models are "MilSpec" and handle travel a lot better than your typical plastic model.

  4. I am going to be a contrarian: USB 3.0 is the first feature I'd ditch when looking for features to ditch. Yes, a few external drives can outrun USB 2.0, but unless you're doing a lot more than what you're doing data-flow wise, you won't get enough of a boost to notice.

    If you are happy with your current Acer rebadge, you should go buy a Samsung 840 Pro flash drive and 8G of memory. Your current laptop with a flash drive will feel brand new.

    As for a larger screen and eyestrain, it's your laptop. Eye strain occurs when the top of your screen is lower than straight ahead. Get a 20" monitor and a good keyboard & mouse, and do your editing at a desk plugged in.

    I'm practicing what I preach here. We went and got Number One Son a used MacBook Pro for college. It's a 2007 unibody that can still run Mavericks, so it's compatible with the new Pages (et. al.) that he's used to. He will want a flash drive eventually, but until then it's as fast a laptop as he needs.

  5. Peter, I have an HP Pavilion g7 with i3 processor, a 17.5" screen and Windows 7. Resolution is 1600×900, which provides 780p viewing. It's two years old now, so FishStyx's recommendation for last year's model is a good one.

  6. You don't need significant processing power for anything you've listed. You'll see more speed from getting rid of bloatware and keeping your computer lean and malware free than you'll see from a high end processor. And SSD or SSD hybrid drive will make a very noticeable difference, however (especially in boot and program load times).

    I find USB 2.0 adequate for everything except large photo shoots and video work. An incremental backup program like synctoy (free from Mi&*%!oft) will handle most of your backup chores in very little time. A "toaster" style external device that plugs in internal style drives is invaluable (or just go with Carbonite).

    Hard drive swaps are cheap and easy, if you can get the machine open, so I don't worry too much about it at this stage.

    Your screen is your living – and your eyes are important. Make sure you get enough screen for you. That's why a trip to the store is a good idea.

    Also, a lot of laptops don't last all that long anyway. You might well be replacing a 3 year old high end machine because it's crapped out on you.

    So, in the end, if it was me, if I could live with the screen on your current machine, I'd swap out the drive. If not, I'd go to the store and get the least expensive machine with the screen you need.

    Then, I'd put effort into keeping the software set lean and mean.

  7. Don't forget to look for Black Friday deals (e.g. http://slickdeals.net/newsearch.php?q=1080+laptop). Also, I think the most important consideration is what you use it for.

    Is this a computer that you'll be carrying to a lot of different places? If so, you may want something lighter with a lot of battery life.

    Is this a desktop replacement that basically lives on a desk? If so, you might prefer to just get a cheap desktop and an nice large monitor.

    Or will it be used as both? In which case you could always get the cheapest of the three options above and get a monitor.

    I'm with the others though. An i5 or even i3 would be plenty of processor power for typing (gaming is a different matter).


  8. I will point out that the i7 is nice to have, especially when you're doing work like image and video editing, but the i3 is plenty capable of doing that kind of work too. Processor upgrades tend to be expensive and difficult in notebooks, so I'd recommend going with the hottest one you'll likely need for the term of the machine's service life with you from the get-go.

    Making the jump from 1600×900 is probably not worth a 100% price increase, and it's still a significant improvement over what you have been running, so if that's the sole variable I'd say to go with the cheaper one. That being said, using multiple windows, the extra resolution is pretty awesome.

    Check your specs and see what the RAM capacity is on each machine. Memory upgrades are simple and tend to get cheaper as the machine ages. This may be a case where the amount the machine ships with is adequate for now, but you may want to add more in two or three years to freshen up performance. If you are bumping the ceiling on the capabilities of your 4GB-equipped machine, I'd be concerned about a mere 50% increase, but don't let them sell you a new machine based on how much is installed if you can easily upgrade it for cheaper than the price difference, which is often the case.

    The combination SSD/HD in your C2 is highly alluring. I suspect that you'd really appreciate the lightning-fast boot ups from the SSD, and the 3/4TB spinner will be great for all your file storage needs. Do either of the other machines have a secondary HD bay? This is another way that these things can be upgraded later on. It might be worth considering adding a secondary internal for backups and ditch the external altogether, depending on your usage.

    You won't miss a touch screen, and it just adds more money to the bottom line. Win 8 runs just like Windows when you run it in desktop mode.

    I wouldn't bother with a dock or whatever at the onset if I were you. For well under $100 you can get a KB/mouse wireless set that run off a single adapter, or a wireless keyboard and a mouce that use unification nano receivers. Then you can mix and match your KB/mouse combo and use a single adapter plugged into a 2.0 port.

    Brand loyalty is great, but unless you're married to the Acer brand, I'd encourage you to look at the competition as well. To a large degree, they're going to be comparably priced feature set for feature set, but you may run across an attractive special from another marque. My machine is a Toshiba comparable to your option #2, minus the SSD and with Intel graphics instead of NVidia, but I paid around $800 for it a year ago. At any rate, I'm looking forward to reading about what you wind up purchasing.

  9. My first reaction would be to bin the idea of a laptop for now and get a cheap desktop and a 20" LCD. But the suggestions to replace the drive in the current machine with the SSD makes a lot of sense, but a new HDD would be fine as well. Bump the RAM up to 8 gb while you are at it. RAM is cheap. Take the money saved and still get a 20" minimum LCD display if your current machine has a port for an external monitor. It is the single biggest improvement you can make for productivity.

  10. If you go to Dell's website you can build a laptop with what you want on it.
    And if you look at the small white print at the bottom there is the Dell outlet. This part of the site lists returns and refurbished computers that still can have warranties. Some deals are as simple as a company ordered too many of a certain model of computer and returned them and you get a big discount because of that.
    The price may suit you better like that or you might find some good deals on Newegg.com
    I recommend Newegg.com for pretty much any computer related purchase because I am a reseller and I get good discounts from my vendors but Newegg beats my *costs* pretty consistently with their retail price.

  11. As you know I am a bit of a contrarian, and also a cheap bastid. I'd recommend that you go with the cheapest of the three you list and install Mint Linux. Here's why:

    1. You will get many more years out of your system. I'm still running my old Ubuntu Linux system in 2 GB (!). Your 6 GB should take you for 6-8 years, easy.

    2. Great support for word processing (OpenOffice, LibreOffice), photo manipulation/drawing (GIMP), browsing/blogging/email.

    3. You will never pay for an antivirus subscription. At $50/year over 8 years that's almost as much as the laptop costs.

  12. Have you looked at Marko's review of the Microsoft Surface? He seems to like it for everything he does, including writing and editing. The price looked pretty good.

  13. I posted above as Anonymous. I saw this and wanted to pass it on, as it seems just like what you're looking for. That said, I second the comments that upgrading RAM and getting an SSD can give you extra years out of an old computer.


    Dell XPS 15 Ultrabook: Core i5 3230M 2.6GHz, 6GB DDR3, 500GB HDD + 32GB SSD, 15.6" 1080p LED, 1GB GeForce GT 630M, 9-cell, Mini DisplayPort, Win 7 Prem $599.99 with free shipping
    Dell Home

    Dell XPS 15 Ultrabook [dell.com]

    $799.99 – $200 off with code L5NQDD$WD96PWL
    = $599.99 with free shipping

    Intel Core i5 3230M 2.6GHz
    6GB DDR3
    500GB 7200RPM HDD + 32GB SSD
    15.6" 1920×1080 LED Display
    1GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M
    Killer Wireless-N 1202
    8X Slot Load CD/DVD Burner
    9-cell Battery
    Windows 7 Prem
    3x USB 3.0
    1x Mini DisplayPort
    1x HDMI

  14. I've had a 17" HP laptop for 3+ years now, and it's fine, except that it overheats. Apparently this is a danger with the screen size so large. So now I have the problem that the machine is highly capable, but I can't keep the dang thing cool enough especially in summer. This leads to unwanted crashes after just a few hours of use, increasing with the number of windows/tabs open. Next time I can afford a replacement, I'm going to go for a desktop (since I don't take it anywhere) and when this netbook passes on, I'll add a cheap Chromebook for travelling. That would be my recommendation. Cool thing about a desktop is it's much easier to replace parts and peripherals – much less outlay for a bigger screen somewhere down the line.

  15. Good advice on the hardware; nothing you've outlined will stress the lowest model, so why spend more money? Because you're right, in 3 years or less, any computer you buy now will either still be top-of-the-line or outmoded junk; depending on whether or not politicians succeed in destroying our economy . . .

    One suggestion, though, on backups. Most backup programs use proprietary methods which means you can't restore without first installing that backup software. Even then, those backups usually fail at some point.

    If you want software to backup files, docs, pics, and such, rather than disk imaging software that backs up your whole machine; that allows simple restore of files, and that provides more, specific, granular control over what is backed up, when, where, and how, try this:

    Second Copy


    Requirements: Win XP, 2000, 2003, Vista, 7, 8

    Purchase Information: Shareware: Free to try, $29.95 if you decide to keep it.

    Second Copy is the perfect automatic backup software. It makes a backup of your data files to another directory, internal or external hard disk, flash drive, or to a computer across your network. The backups can be automated, manual on demand, scheduled for certain days and times, or not, as you wish. You can retain one copy or multiple copies, all without ever touching the software after you set it up.

    Second Copy monitors the source files and keeps the backup updated with new or changed files. It runs in the background with no user interaction. So, once it is set up you always have a backup of your data somewhere else.

  16. I'd say the el-cheapo would do you pretty well.

    I wouldn't place a big bet on it being able to fully run any of the fancier games from the last four years or so, but for what you're talking about it looks about right.

  17. Since you seldom take the laptop out of the office.
    After either getting a new one or doing the upgrade on the one you have now, I would consider buying a good larger monitor and using your laptop as a desktop. Wireless keyboard is another thing to think about .

  18. Find out how much memory your current computer can accept and how much it will cost to go to 8 gig or so, and how much a new hard drive will cost. If your current files will fit on an SSD, check those prices too–That's a significant update in boot time and responsiveness. On most laptops memory and hard drive replacement isn't a difficult job.

    Also consider Linux-Like Borepatch, I'd go with Mint. It is a bit different than Windows, but not by a whole lot–and it is less different than going to 8 would be. Works better than Windows on lower-spec hardware and if you aren't a gamer there's free apps for almost everything. Far less vulnerable to malware. If Windows is already there and there is room, you can install side by side and choose which one to use when you boot. My retired and non-technical parents use it, and it works well for them.

    I've used Windows 8 on a non-touchscreen for many months, and won't recommend it.

    I'd also consider getting an external moniotr–at your desk you can run both at once.

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