Over the last decade or so, I've owned and used 16 laptops from 7 manufacturers, so I've had a fair amount of experience with a variety of laptops. Here's what I've learned, and what I've owned, in order:
1) a 75Mhz IBM ThinkPad 701c. This is the original butterfly keyboard ThinkPad - still works great although it's now slow, slow, slow. I never expected the butterfly keyboard to last this long, and am saving this thing as a collectors item. :-)
2) a 266Mhz Toshiba Satellite. This was a bit clunky for me, and now has a broken screen, but the computer still works if hooked up to a display. There was nothing in my experience with this Toshiba that would make me go out of my way to try another one, but nothing seriously disappointing that would lead me to avoid Toshiba, either.
3) a 500Mhz Sharp. I returned to the store within 30 days when it gave me problem after problem.
4) a 700Mhz T20 ThinkPad. I used this for 2 years and sold in on eBay - it held its value well.
5) a 2.8GHz HP Pavillion. I sold this at the Dayton ComputerFest after 6 months because it was heavy and wasn't up to my usability standards.
6) a T40 ThinkPad I enjoyed for 18 months, when IBM exchanged it at no charge for an upgraded, new T42 because the wiring on a screen they had once replaced on site under the extended warranty I bought just kept causing problems the technicians couldn't fix. Wow! What fantastic support policies.
7) the T42 Thinkpad replacement. This system served me well for four years. I still have it but replaced it with the Dell D620 because I needed the more advanced graphics to show off muvee Reveal 8 at my presentations.
8) a Dell XPS M1710 Intel provided me to support my user group relations activities for them. I loved it's speed and graphics and Core 2 Duo CPU, but it's no Thinkpad for portability. I sold it to my brother-in-law, so I obviously respect this laptop.
9) A Dell M1210 mini-laptop Microsoft provided me to try Windows Vista after I had difficulty getting Vista to install, which I was writing about for Smart Computing Magazine. This system was great for portability, and has Windows Vista on it. I also had problems with its media player feature, and it died because of a power problem that I suspect was a design defect. I should probably return it to Microsoft but they don't seem to want it back.
10) A Dell Latitude D620. The Latitude is a nice balance between portability, durability, and performance - most of what I say about ThinkPads also applies to this system - with one big exception: this baby runs HOT HOT HOT. I let my 10-year old daughter use this now to watch DVDs when we travel.
11) An Acer Aspire. We inherited this from my father-in-law, but it has been flaky and nothing but trouble since the day we bought it, and has horrible ergonomics. Same power connector design problems as the Dell M1210. One of the cousins also stepped on the screen, so I replaced it. After opening it up, I must say that I am not impressed with the quality of the engineering or design. But then again, I've been spoiled by my exposure to so many ThinkPads over the years.
12) A MacBook Pro (2.4GHz, 200GB, multi-touch) - this was one of the most expensive (over $2,600) mistakes of my entire life. Because I was accustomed to ThinkPad levels of rugged durability, I didn't treat the MacBook as the delicate system it is, and paid a heavy price. Within a week of buying it, I put it in my laptop case with the ThinkPad to go to a presentation, and when I pulled it out, it had a dent in the case - presumably from contact with the rubber foot of the ThinkPad. At first I was annoyed that I would have to send in my brand new MacBook - but when I spoke to Apple, they said it was "cosmetic damage" and not covered under the warranty - even though I had bought AppleCare for another several hundred dollars! Later, the screen developed problems right where the dent was on the other side, and when I called about that, Apple said that it was "accidental damage" - which wasn't covered under AppleCare either, even though the rep at Fry's had said it was. Also, the CD wouldn't eject because the slit in the side had become warped, and the Apple technician blamed me for it because I admitted I had, at times, carried the system around with one hand - again spoiled by the ThinkPads, which never seem to suffer from similar treatment. Anyway, anyone want to buy a MacBook Pro for cheap? I haven't the heart to cut my losses and list it on eBay... Oh, by the way, it does have a nice operating system (OS X), but Windows 7 caught Microsoft up to Apple in terms of ease of use and reliability.
13) A ThinkPad Edge 14 (0578-F7U) - at $799, this was an INCREDIBLE value. If offers everything (and more) that I had on the $2,500+ T42 I bought just five years ago - durability, quality, a Trackpoint, Active hard disk protection, fingerprint reader safety, improved ThinkVantage software tools, ease-of-use, a built-in webcam, Windows Pro 64-bit, an HDMI port for when I'm presenting, 3 USB 2.0 ports, a DVD-RW drive, built-in 802.11n wireless, BlueTooth, eSata, Gb Ethernet, and more. Without a doubt the best laptop I had ever owned for the best price I've ever paid for a new laptop. I was expecting to get a somewhat compromised laptop (given the price and the fact that it's an Edge and not a high-end ThinkPad), but have been nothing but delighted. The compromises are virtually unnoticeable. I only used this one for six months because I wanted to upgrade to one with an Intel Sandy Bridge processor. (see below). My wife is now using this one - it's perfect for her. I sold 35 of these during my annual user group presentations in Arizona, and got rave reviews for it.
14) A ThinkPad Edge 14 420s (4401-28U) - the latest best value system I've ever owned. Even though it's a little more expensive than the last one, it's thinner, lighter, and better looking (chrome edges and smooth, seamless glass around the display). It's also better performing, with an Intel Core i5 (Sandy Bridge) processor; plus it has a better, more convenient layout of the ports around the side. It also has a slot CD, so there's no chance of accidentally breaking the CD tray (because it has no tray). And unlike the MacBook Pro, it seems to be a lot more rugged so there's no concern about the slot getting squished in the middle. I love this one so much I decided to sell it in my My eBay Store - which is the first laptop I've been willing to sell on eBay.
15) A ThinkPad X1 Carbon (3444-25U) - Lenovo's answer to the MacBook Air (on steroids and protected by Kevlar). This is in amazing Ultrabook - .7" thin and 3 pounds light, with a fast Intel i7 processor and a fast 256GB Solid State Drive (which is like flash memory for your hard disk). It looks to be about as durable and rugged as any other ThinkPad, even though it's lack of heft misleads you into thinking it might be delicate - it's not. It's passed military grade specifications against all kinds of environmental hazards, including humidity, extreme temperatures, and durability.
16) A ThinkPad Twist S230u (3347-2HU) - Lenovo's new Twist is an exciting step forward. I've been using it for over a month now, and am still learning something new about Windows 8 and using a touch-screen on a laptop almost every day, but I've really enjoyed using this system - even the significant learning experience that comes with making the leap to a touchscreen and Windows 8. I've had a tablet (an iPad) for the past 3 years, and I first wished that the iPad had a physical, more productive keyboard; and then when I got it, I wished it was more convenient and less of a nuisance to carry around. The Twist solves the problem of needing to carry around a cumbersome keyboard with a tablet. And because it's a ThinkPad, it's rugged and durable and has all of the other benefits that come with ThinkPad ownership.
Thankfully, I've never had one stolen. No matter what kind of laptop you get, a word to the wise: don't let it out of your sight unless you're at home, and get an accidental damage warranty - almost 1 out of every 4 laptops I've owned have suffered some kind of damage. Which is one of the best reasons to get a ThinkPad - not only are they more reliable, but accidental damage and on-site and other extended warranties simply cost less. So other than its high desirability to a thief, I can't think of any other reason NOT to own a ThinkPad (engineered by IBM, who sold off their ThinkPad division to Lenovo years ago). In the past, I've thought that the relatively high cost of either system was a good reason to get something less expensive, but every time I've done that, I've mostly regretted it. ThinkPads are definitely worth more money, but it would seem that now you don't even have to pay more for them.
THINKING ABOUT A MACBOOK?
I really wanted to like the MacBook Pro I bought. My oldest son persuaded me to give it a try, so I did. In some ways, the Apple design is superior - such as the magnetic power adapter; but in other ways, such as durability, it's much worse.
The power connector on the MacBook is WOW! If you catch or trip on most laptop's power cord, you can pull it onto the floor, and it may or may not survive the fall (although ThinkPads are safe because of their Active Protection). That generally won't happen with the MacBook because the power connector is magnetic and just pops off rather than pulling on the laptop - which is a good thing, because in my experience the MacBook would probably NOT survive the fall. The MacBook charge connector also has a small light that lets you know by its color whether its plugged in or not or fully charged or charging. That's nice.
And nobody can deny that the "cool" factor of anything Apple is off the charts, and makes objective comparisons difficult. But speaking of "cool" and "heat," I need to point out that the MacBook runs much, much hotter than any ThinkPad I've used, and even hotter than the Dell D620.
Also, the MacBook is missing the TrackPoint, but a MacBook's pad with multi-touch is so smartly designed as well that it's probably a push for most people. Personally, I miss the TrackPoint on systems that don't have it more than I miss multi-touch on systems that don't have multi-touch - and most of the ThinkPads now have multi-touch as well, although it's not quite as elegantly done as the MacBook's.
But for me, the most critical issue is that the Macbook Pro, with its lightweight aluminum case, is far more delicate than the Thinkpads or Dells, with their rugged but still fairly lightweight magnesium cases, or whatever they're made of these days. Just Google "Macbook dents" and then "Thinkpad dents" to get a feel for relative durability of the two. In fact, the Macbook Pro's extreme fragility is a showstopper for me.
I don't think the regular MacBook has the same problems, because their case seems less fragile than the MacBook Pro, so I'd recommend that, if you have to have a MacBook, get the regular MacBook, or perhaps the MacBook Air.
So let me now elaborate on why I like Thinkpads so much better than anything else I've ever tried or encountered.
WHAT MAKES THINKPADS SPECIAL
For starters, I'm a fan of the intelligent engineering and durability that characterize the ThinkPad line. The ThinkPad is literally head-and-shoulders above everyone else in this department. It's as if these systems were designed by creative engineers who actually used their inventions for well over a decade, improving everything they could whenever they could. Come to think of it, that's probably a pretty close description of the IBM and Lenovo engineering that's gone into the Thinkpad for almost two decades now. Since the early '90s, the ThinkPad has been the undisputed leader in smart design and intelligent engineering.
Now I have to confess right here that I'm biased, because even though I'm not an engineer, I was at IBM when the ThinkPads were originally designed, and I even served on IBM's Field Advisory Council - 12 marketing reps and systems engineers who advised IBM on what our government and corporate customers were looking for in desktops and laptops. In other words, I was one little cog in the generally big wheel that is responsible for developing the ThinkPads, so discount what I say to the degree that I'm pretty proud of being involved with the birth of the ThinkPads even to a small degree. But if I were totally biased, I wouldn't have purchased half of my laptops this past decade from other laptop manufacturers. But back to the intelligent engineering.
Laptops should be made to be conveniently portable. This should be self-evident, but it's not. Many people purchase a desktop in a laptop case - me included with the HP Pavillion and the Dell XPS. That's not really a bad thing, but I've found that when you're lugging around a seven or eight pound desktop disguised as a laptop, there are a few extra considerations you need to keep in mind:
First, the last place you want to put it is on your lap. If you think all of the heat will blow out the side vents, you're kidding yourself and it's a joke you won't be laughing at later. ThinkPads generally run a lot cooler than other systems, but if you want the coolest laptops on the planet, look for a ThinkPad with Intel's Centrino chipset. These are actually cool enough to use on your lap. The best illustration of this is my experience with the Dell D620 and the ThinkPad Edge. This size is virtually identical, but the difference in heat output is significant. The Dell gets uncomfortably hot after less than 10 minutes on my lap, and the ThinkPad Edge never gets uncomfortably hot. All of the ThinkPads I've had have run cool, especially the X1 Carbon. That may not be true for AMD-based ThinkPads, but I can certainly vouch for the Intel-based ThinkPads I've used.
Second, the weight of your laptop makes a big difference. If you want a lot of exercise and a good excuse to visit your chiropractor every few weeks, just travel with a laptop that weighs more than 4 or 5 pounds. If you can get an Ultrabook, you'll like having a system that's 3.5 lbs or less.
Those reasons why you may not want a humongous desktop in a laptop's body ARE reasons why you'll enjoy a Thinkpad. They are designed to be much thinner and lighter (the new ThinkPad X1 Carbon, like the MacBook Air, is only 3 pounds and is no trouble to carry around in one hand), and my real-life experience bears that out, in spades.
Unfortunately, that nice, full-sized keyboard and well-positioned mouse you take for granted on your desktop doesn't usually translate to a laptop, so get ready for the joys of finger-scrunching, poorly laid out keys, finger-flailing on a touchpad, and even carpal tunnel syndrome if you're not careful to get a laptop with a well-designed keyboard.
The Thinkpads' full-sized, spill-proof keyboards are nearly legendary. They are laid out so well you'll find yourself annoyed that everyone else doesn't copy them every time you try to use someone else's laptop. And spilling water or coffee on your keyboard doesn't kill your laptop if you have a ThinkPad. You can't say that about many other laptops - most notably the Macbook - which were apparently not designed for everyday use.
TRACKPOINT vs. TOUCHPAD
And then there's the little rubber eraser-looking pointing device in the middle of the keyboard - the TrackPoint. Now, I know some people who say that the TrackPoint is hard to use and they prefer the touchpad, but I suppose there's nothing that everyone can agree on, but still, the Trackpoint is so easy to use and so elegant that I can't imagine that critics have even made much of an effort to get used to the TrackPoint. It only takes a few hours to get accustomed to it, and I recommend that you adjust the settings to make it more responsive than the defaults, but once you ARE familiar with it and used to it, then moving the mouse is just about as easy as thinking. The mouse becomes an extension of your finger. I go crazy when I have to bully around a touchpad, but I keep trying to make friends with it nonetheless, since the TrackPoint seems to be pretty much a Thinkpad exclusive these days and if you own any other laptop you need to use a touchpad. But for those who want either a touchpad or both, most Thinkpads have both Trackpoint and Touchpad so you can use whichever one you like - and if you use the trackpoint as your mouse, then you can use the ThinkPad's touchpad for all kinds of other cool things enabled by the ThinkVantage software driver. One of the things I liked about the Dell Latitude is that it also had a Trackpoint.
The best part is that for all of the ergonomic niceties of the Thinkpad, you really don't give up much noticeable performance. I kid you not - the designers of the Thinkpad didn't forget performance when they created such nicely usable systems. They may not be the fastest systems you'll find, but they're almost always well above average - and the performance difference between a ThinkPad and a laptop with equivalent specs is often unnoticeable in actual use.
The Thinkpads are simply the closest thing I've found to no-compromise hardware design.
PROTECTION, SECURITY, and DURABILITY
Then there's the optional fingerprint reader you get on many models - such as my T42, Dell Latitude, and ThinkPad Edge. Combined with the built-in security chip, IBM has the most usable, convenient absolutely secure systems you're likely to find. With very little effort, you can protect your laptop such that thieves won't be able to even use it. They'll have to dismantle it for parts, and even then all of the data on your hard disk is perfectly safe. For the life of me, I can't understand why all of those Veteran's records that were on a laptop that was stolen weren't on a biometrically-protected laptop. Of course, anyone that cavalier with data probably doesn't pay much attention to all the reasons a ThinkPad offers superior value, either. They probably just look at price and a few other specs that really don't tell the story. Don't make that mistake.
Recent ThinkPads even have webcams with face recognition software! Leave your computer, and you can configure it to lock up until you (or more accurately, your fingerprint) comes back.
SUPPORT and DURABILITY
Then, there's durability and support. Another example of elegant Thinkpad engineering: if you ever drop or even suddenly whack some other laptop, especially while the hard disk is working, you're very lucky if the hard disk doesn't crash on you right then and there. Most Thinkpads, however, have what they call Active Protection. A sensor inside the PC or hard disk - I'm not sure where - knows when the laptop moves suddenly in any direction and quickly moves (parks) the hard disk head safely away from your data. Brilliant. And Thinkpads are designed to take a hit once in a while. You certainly can't say the same thing for the aluminum or plastic Macbooks. They seem very delicate compared to the strongly-cased Thinkpads.
When I buy my laptops, I try to get on-site service (including accident / loss coverage) unless it's not available or just too expensive. And if I don't get it (like with the Toshiba), then it ends up costing me even more down the road when something breaks - and in my experience, one out of every four of five laptops eventually do break if they're used frequently. So I like knowing that I can get my laptop fixed if it breaks without having to prove that the damage wasn't accidental, such as when I got in an argument with Apple about a dent in the MacBook Pro. And the best thing about having onsite protection is that you don't have to give up the use of your laptop for as long, and you'll get it fixed much more quickly (usually within a day or two) than if you only have the mail-in / courier repair warranty service.
3-years of on-site service for the ThinkPad is usually cheaper than equivalent service for the other guys - which just confirms my personal experience that ThinkPads are more durable and require less service. No, I'm not telling you that ThinkPads are problem-free - just that other laptops are somewhat worse when it comes to requiring service, in my decades-worth of experience. And the other guys aren't as good about fixing theirs, either. Lenovo (which is basically the same people that used to be IBM) just seems to care more about service - which is why Lenovo is typically given such high marks in surveys and comparisons and is considered, along with Dell, the industry leader in service and support. Apple has good service and support, especially through their stores, but AppleCare doesn't cover accidental damage last time I checked, and their support just hasn't seemed as friendly.
So one last tip on the support: if your laptop has a sealed battery (and most Ultrabooks do), then you definitely want to opt for the optional battery replacement coverage along with an extension of the basic warranty from one year to three years. It's worth the small extra investment you have to make, especially considering the fact that your battery will inevitably and unavoidably lose significant power capacity between years two and three.
This may be the only area where where the MacBook may have an advantage, but the ThinkPad with Windows 7 or 8 seem to have closed that gap as well. Both OS X from Apple and Windows 7 from Microsoft are very usable, mature, and solidly reliable operating systems. You always hear that the Mac is easier. Well, that may have been true in the past, but now I don't think it's any easier than Windows, and Windows 8 may have arguably taken the lead. OS X is clearly more reliable and predictable than XP or Vista, but Windows 7 changed the equation. It's easy and reliable, and Windows 8 seems to have inherited that mantle (the rap on Windows 8 is that it comes with a learning curve). The main reason I can see to go with OS X is to have the best of both worlds: you can run Windows 7 under VMWare Fusion. But since Windows is more popular (commonly available) than Mac OS X, there are simply more good apps available for Windows than for Mac. And I didn't find any "killer apps" on Mac OS X that I had to have. There are advantages to both operating systems and some of the apps on each.
Most laptops come with a suite of tools to help you get the most out of it. On the MacBook, everything (with the exception of fingerprint management software - which I haven't seen on MacBooks) is integrated with the operating system.
With a ThinkPad, you get what they call ThinkVantage software - some of which is built into the laptop firmware, and some of which runs under Windows. It's certainly part of what makes a ThinkPad so enjoyable to work with. With Windows 7, they also have what they're calling "Lenovo Enhanced Experience."
* display management that's very convenient if you're doing presentations or an external monitor,
* nice backup and recovery software
* fingerprint reader management and file security software that's excellent, as mentioned previously
These tools are not perfect, and on the T42 had a tendency to become degraded with "upgrades," but I think they're now very mature and are certainly much better than relying on what Windows offers. I think IBM's had many years of American executives using Thinkpads who have told them to fix any bugs in their laptop software or lose a big corporate client. So they have a tendency to be more elegant and usable than many of the others, although Dell does an excellent job there too. I can only fault Dell for shipping the chip-clogging McAfee suite with their laptops. I thought I had a new PC when I uninstalled every last bit of the McAfee software...
Of course, the Thinkpads still come with Norton, so that's not much better, although I hear from my friend, Steve Bass, that the newer Norton stuff isn't as bad as it used to be. Whatever the laptops have, I uninstall their security software and then install the INVISUS PC Security solution (it's a Managed Internet Security Service that's a supurb solution to the whole security mess) - and then enjoy a boost in performance once Norton or McAfee has been replaced by something more elegant. But the security software isn't part of the ThinkVantage software, and most other laptops are no better off in the security department, so ThinkPads don't really lose points there, unless you compare them to the MacBook, which has the twin benefits of excellent security as part of the operating system AND fewer threats out there to be concerned with.
I hear a fair amount of concern about Lenovo having purchased the ThinkPad division from IBM. So far, my experience has been that little has changed except the ownership of the company, and they seem to know enough not to try to fix what's not broken. I've been told by numerous insiders that the same people, by and large, still design and support ThinkPads that used to. And if you're looking for a laptop that's Made in America, you'll be looking for a long, long time. It's enough for me that most of the money for the ThinkPad I buy goes to pay the salaries of Americans who still care about (and deliver) quality, service, and support.
In the past, there were benefits to buying a customized laptop, and Lenovo had major advantages of scale in offering customized laptops so you wouldn't spend money on features you didn't need. But now, where the difference between a really nice laptop (like the ThinkPad Edge I just bought) and a much less full-featured laptop is only $200 or $300, I don't see any reason to customize. Just find a ThinkPad or ThinkPad Edge in your price range and you'll be fine.
If you're on a budget, I recommend that you get a laptop in the $600 to $900 price range - that seems to be where you get the best bang for your buck. If you can afford it, get the high-end ThinkPad X1 Carbon. The ThinkPad once had a reputation for being pricey, but Lenovo now has competitively priced systems across the entire spectrum, and in my opinion, offer the best value by far. Over the life of the machine, the compromises you make to save a few dollars will haunt you for years while the money you save will be gone quickly. You really can't go wrong when you get a ThinkPad in the value per dollar sweet spot according to your needs.
I don't know ANYONE who has purchased a Thinkpad who bemoans the price they paid - instead, they always seem to rave about what a great laptop they own. It used to be that you paid top dollar to get a ThinkPad, and it was worth it. Now, their prices are competitive, which makes getting a ThinkPad a true no-brainer, since you can now get ThinkPad quality for other laptop prices. If you're spending even $500 on a laptop, I believe you'll agree with me that it doesn't make sense to try to save even $50 and forego a TON of the satisfaction you get when you know you have the highest quality, most usable, hassle-free, best-engineered laptop out there; if you've never owned a Thinkpad, give it some serious consideration. It's like getting a Lexus - once you've owned one, for a variety of reasons that just don't show up when you're comparing specs on paper, you really don't want to risk the disappointment of ever going with anything else. And if you HAVE owned a ThinkPad, you don't need me to tell you how they're superior.
You can find new and used Thinkpads here on eBay (I've recently became Lenovo authorized and started selling them here myself) - but be careful: beware of any Buy-It-Now deal that seems too good to be true. It probably is. Laptops are a prime opportunity for fraud because they're expensive and popular and people are looking for a deal. I've now had four people "buy" a laptop I sold here and then pay with someone else's PayPal account, so both buyers and sellers need to beware.
I hope this Guide and my experience with laptops over this past decade has been helpful to you. If not, let me know where you think I'm missing the boat - feel free to send me a note here on eBay.
If this guide has been helpful to you, please take a moment and click on the Yes button below, because I need the encouragement and the strokes. :-)
Many thanks and may your laptop experience be a quality one!