New Laptop Joins the Quest: The Choice

I’d been without a capable laptop since my Macbook drank a cup of coffee over a year ago. It was time to get something more capable than my iPad or a netbook so I began searching for a laptop. While I didn’t need something for my most demanding needs, I did want something that wouldn’t tie me to a desk for 80% of my computer work. This article lays out my requirements and the choice I made, a Dell Inspiron 15R.

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Picture of a Dell Inspiron 15R

A little over a month ago I decided I wanted to add a laptop to my PC collection. I haven’t had a capable laptop since my Macbook lost an argument with a cup of coffee over a year ago. I’ve had a Netbook since the coffee mishap and a iPad more recently. Neither one gave me the portable computing power I really want, so I decided to look around.

Even a low cost Macbook would be over a grand, so while I didn’t rule absolutely rule it out, it was never a serious consideration.

I had the iPad for web browsing and media consumption and it filled the role pretty well. (Although web surfing suffers due to the lack of flash support.) But a low-end laptop with a bigger screen and keyboard wouldn’t provide enough additional bang for the buck. I’d be using it for web development, basic photo editing (cropping, minor adjustments and such) and general PC applications. Nothing overly intensive except I wanted to be able to run Virtual Machines for web development and other testing. So I listed out my requirements:

  • While I wanted a laptop for it’s portability, I didn’t need it to be small or especially lite. While I would occasionally travel with it, I’d mainly use it around the house, on the patio or the couch.
  • Minimum 14” screen/1260 X 768 resolution – I wanted to be able to put windows up side-by-side, even if they aren’t large windows.
  • A CPU that has hardware virtualization support. So either a Intel CPU with VT-x support or an AMD CPU with AMD-V support.
  • Minimum 4GB of RAM to support the VMs, but more memory would be better. A laptop with a 4GB hardware limit would be unacceptable, even if I got 4GB to start with I may want to upgrade, so expandability to 8GB would be required.
  • A built-in CD/DVD drive, not external. Since I wasn’t looking for the smallest, lightest laptop I wanted a built-in optical drive. I still had enough use for a optical drive and I wanted everything to be self-contained. I don’t really see a need for a burner but I suspect that’s what I’ll get.
  • 500GB Hard Drive – I want the space to be able to have several virtual machines on the local hard drive and that will take disk space. I don’t want to have to worry about keeping an external hard drive nearby.
  • 802.11N Wireless along with a built-in wired Ethernet port.
  • Built-in SDHC card reader. My camera currently uses SDHC cards and I can foresee taking both on trips.
  • A reasonable expectation that the laptop will provide acceptable performance for 3 years.
  • A maximum price of $1000, including any shipping, taxes and other fees.
  • If a back-lit keyboard is available as an option I would get it but it doesn’t rise to the level of “must have”.

I checked both HP and Dell. Both have Employee Purchase Programs (EPP) with my employer so I figured I may get a better price through the EPP. I also checked out other brands at Newegg. I ended up buying a Dell Inspiron 15R. Unlike the typical Dell purchase process, the Inspiron is sold in various packages, rather than being able to pick a chose each piece of hardware. This resulted in differences between the regular Dell website and the EPP website. I bought through the regular website since the EPP site through in a Blu-Ray drive once I picked the other hardware I wanted. So while a good price for the drive, it was an extra $50 for something I didn’t want and wouldn’t use.

These days I have no particular loyalty to any brand out there and can probably find horror stories about any of them. I went with the Dell because it had better reviews overall than anything else I considered. I also stopped by Best Buy to take a look at one and liked the screen and keyboard.

What I got was:

  • Intel Core i5-450M 2.66Ghz processor (w/VT-x support)
  • 6GB DDR3 RAM (expandable to 8GB)
  • 15.6” Display (1366 X 768). Also listed as 720p
  • ATI Mobility Radeon™ HD5470 video card, 1GB RAM
  • 640GB 5400rpm hard drive.
  • Media Card Reader (7 in 1) which includes SDHC
  • CD/DVD Burner
  • Four USB ports, one of which is a combo eSata port.
  • Windows 7 Premium 64-bit

The PC arrived just before I was going on vacation so I didn’t flatten the install and was left with the crapware. I uninstalled McAfee right away since it was impossible to ignore. I did want Windows 7 Premium x64 anyway so at this point a complete re-install would be more trouble than it’s worth.

I haven’t used the laptop much while I was traveling, so while I have no complaints yet I still haven’t used the PC enough to recommend it. While I like the keyboard I’m not liking the trackpad. The trackpad isn’t a huge issue since I prefer an external mouse anyway, but I find the trackpad buttons hard to press. They have to be pressed just right, otherwise the click is ignored. I’ll write more about it as I use it, but so far the trackpad is my only complaint and I’m happy with the performance.