Best Value Portable Computers (Laptops, Net Books, and MacBooks) for Students – A Comparative Review

On a requirement basis the market for personal computers can be broadly categorized as:
  1. Business Machines– this market is corned overwhelmingly by Windows machines. Until recently, majority of these were desktop or tower computers but the current trend is toward laptops, as its premium have reduced significantly.
  2. Home Machines – Windows rules this roost for the bulk of home machines run Microsoft software with notebooks and/or netbooks replacing older desktops.
  3. Student Machines – The jury is still out on this category as a growing number of students are reaching for Apple MacBook (Laptops) and/or iMacs (Integrated Desktop – Monitor is the computer) as their computer of choice.
For a student seeking a personal computer, lack of portability limits the desktops or iMacs leaving the laptops as the better choice. For folks looking for good quality and low prices a previously owned computer can help you save money. Our best value review of laptops and net books last year has been periodically updated as new models appeared. As this review is focused on students, Apple MacBooks are included.

For best value comparative spreadsheet listed below, a best value Windows 7 Net Book, a best value Windows 7 Laptop, and a couple of Apple’s offerings were chosen. Below is our spreadsheet:


Feature/ProductASUS Eee PC 1005PE-PU17Toshiba Satellite L505-GS5037
MacBook MC516LL
MacBook Air MC233LL
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Price$371.99$599.99$949.98$1429.99
ProcessorIntel Atom 1.66 GHz N450 Processor 512 KB L2 Cache, 533 MHz2.13 GHz Intel® Core™ i3 330M (2.13GHz, 3MB Smart Cache, Graphics Max Frequency - 667 MHz)2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 3MB on-chip shared L2 cache running 1:1 with processor speed. 1066MHx FSB1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6MB on-chip shared L2 cache running 1:1 with processor speed. 1066MHx FSB
Memory1GB DDR2 RAM, 1 x SODIMM Slot, 2GB Max.4GB DDR3 SO-DIMM2GB (two 1GB SO-DIMMs)2GB of 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM onboard.
Hard Disk (HD)250GB SATA Hard Drive (5400RPM)500 GB 5400 RPM Serial ATA250GB 5400-rpm Serial ATA hard disk drive; optional 320GB or 500GB 5400-rpm drive120GB 4200-rpm Serial ATA hard disk drive or 128GB solid-state drive
DrivesNone8x DVD Super Multi Drive with Label Flash8x slot-loading SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)None
Ports and Slots1 x VGA Port (D-sub 15-pin for external monitor), 3 x USB 2.0, 1 x LAN RJ-45, 2 x Audio Jack (Head Phone / Mic-in), Card Reader: MMC/ SD(SDHC)(3) USB 2.0 compliant 4-pin ports, 15-pin VGA video connector, Network connector (RJ45), AC adapter connector, Headphone jack, 4-pin IEEE 1394 portMagSafe power port, Gigabit Ethernet port, Mini DisplayPort, Two USB 2.0 ports (up to 480 Mbps), Audio in/out, Kensington lock slotMagSafe power port, USB Ethernet Adapter, One USB 2.0 port, Analog audio and headphone out.
Other Feature Summary10.1" WSVGA 1024x600 LCD Display, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n. Windows 7 Starter Operating System (32 Bit), 14 Hours of Battery Life, 500GB ASUS web storage. Weight – 2.80 lbs. Size - 10.31x 7.01 x 1.02-1.44 inches15.6” 720p native HD, 1366x768, 16:9; wireless - 802.11b/g/n; Intel Integrated Graphics Media Accelerator (1696MB max shared memory allocation); 4-hour 6-cell 4400 maH Lithium Ion Primary Battery. 1.3 MB Web Cam; Windows® 7 Home Premium 64-bit. Weight – 6 lbs. Size – 15.1x1.55x10.2 inches13.3-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen; AirPort Extreme 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless networking; NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM; 7-hour 60-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery; Mac OS X v10.6 Snow Leopard and iLife (includes iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, iWeb, iDVD); Weight – 4.7 lbs. Built-in Bluetooth, Size – 1.08x13x9.12 inches13.3-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen; AirPort Extreme 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless networking; NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM; 5-hour 40-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery; built-in bluetooth, camera, display port, Mac OS X v10.6 Snow Leopard and iLife (includes iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, iWeb, iDVD); Weight – 3.0 lbs. Size 0.16-0.76x12.8x8.94 inches



The primary differences between Windows and Mac’s can be summarized as:

Operating System: Mac OS X Snow Leopard runs only on proprietary Apple hardware. Apple controls the whole ecosystem unlike Windows where one can purchase or build the machine using components and software from Microsoft or other third-party software vendors.

Virus Protection: One of Apple’s marketing claims is that Macs are 100% free of PC viruses. While true, this claim does muddy the water. Viruses designed for PCs cannot run on the Mac OS X just as any application designed for Windows won’t work on other operating systems. The more pertinent messages the marketing claim fails to mention are:
  • The operating system is based on UNIX designed with security in mind from the ground up, and
  • Due to the outsized market share that Windows enjoy; there are more people writing viruses for Windows than for Macs.
OS Features: Having gone through numerous iterations the operating systems are very solid and functional for both Windows and Macs and the feature set is very comparable. Minimalist setup and slick interface however places the Leopard’s Time Machine as a clear winner over Microsoft Backup.

Software Options: Many but not all of the popular Windows products are available for the Mac and conversely Apple has a number of exclusive software packages that work better than third party products. One dilemma facing students is in choosing between Apple’s productivity suite called iWork and Microsoft Office for the Mac. Although iWork is significantly cheaper and runs better, because of the monopoly enjoyed by Microsoft Office, iWork users will eventually have to deal with Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, etc) documents. While it is true that iWork supports these document types, it is not even remotely as convenient as working with those documents in Microsoft Office.

Peripherals: Although the basic hardware that Apple ships is proprietary, most of the generic Windows peripherals (USB devices such as Mouse, Keyboard, Printers, Hard Drives, etc and other devices such as LCD Monitor, and SD Cards) will work with the MacBook as Apple’s base machine is preinstalled with hundreds of drivers for peripherals. Even so, Apple branded peripherals is popular and regarded to function better by many users. Be cognizant of not only just the higher costs but also of the fact of buying into a proprietary solution. Examples include
  • AirPort Express - a Wireless router (similar as Linksys) plus wireless printing plus wireless music streaming,
  • AirPort Extreme - a Wireless router plus wireless printing plus share a hard drive plus more connections,
  • Time Capsule – An automatic Wireless Backup solution, and
  • Magic Mouse – A wireless multi-touch mouse with gestures based functionality first introduced in iTouch & iPhone.

Summary:

It is indeed gratifying that a student on a tight budget can put together a fully functional setup for around $350 – the ASUS Eee PC with Windows 7 pre-installed along with Open Source Software is sufficient for most student needs. The Toshiba L505 Laptop along with Microsoft Office and/or other software will increase that cost by several hundred dollars but with that is the convenience of a more powerful machine and ease of use. The MacBooks are even easier to use and comes with an intangible cool factor. The minimum cost pushes the $1K mark and begging the question whether the extra cost is justified for the circumstance. We recently went with the Toshiba Satellite L505-GS50 - familiarity with Windows, the fact that it comes preinstalled with the latest Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit and the pricing made it our choice. So far, we are really happy with our purchase. Caveats include:
  1. Speakers - we usually have the machine connected to an external monitor and with that setup, the voice from the speakers is really low even when setting at the highest volume,
  2. Preinstalled software - Office and some other software trial versions are included but it is best to get rid of them if you do not plan to spent money to upgrade to the latest versions, and
  3. Windows 7 Media - Install DVD is not shipped with the product. The only motivation we can think of is a little cost savings for the manufacturer. Both the product ID and the license string are not easily accessible. We ended up using a shareware program to retrieve this information from the system for future use. For the install DVD, we downloaded it from one of the public shares. Overall, this is a hassle that they should address!
  4. Compared to our experience with Dell Vostro Laptops, the battery of this Toshiba was well below par - had to replace it in about 18 months and the new ones are expensive.
Related Posts:
  1. Best Values in Netbooks & Notebooks - A Comparative Review.
  2. Best Value Portable Computers for Students (Laptops, Netbooks, and MacBooks) - A Comparative Review (this post).
  3. Tablet PCs - A Comparative Review.

    Last Updated: 01/2012.


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