I’m looking for a laptop that I can use in school for writing. I’d like it to be thin and portable but also quite nippy and quick. It would help if it could 3G connect, allowing me to store all my data in my Ubuntu cloud. I prefer Ubuntu to Windows and therefore the laptop doesn’t need an OS installed.
Not many laptops are available running the Ubuntu version of Linux, and I don’t know of any laptops that are supplied in the UK without an operating system. (There may be some.) Very few laptops have built-in 3G connections, and they tend to be somewhat expensive. Worse, while there are plenty of thin netbooks and laptops around, the affordable ones tend not to be nippy. So, although your requirements sound perfectly reasonable, they’re not catered for by the mainstream PC suppliers, who may still be smarting from their disastrous “smartbook” efforts. I suspect you will have to compromise on one or more areas, depending on what’s important to you.
Thin, portable laptops tend to have 13.3in screens, and this size is popular enough to offer plenty of choice. If you want something nippy, then a chip from the second-generation Intel Core iX range (codenamed Sandy Bridge) would be a good choice. A Core i3 is probably nippy enough, but you can pay more for a Core i5 or too much for a Core i7. In this case, the system of choice could be a Toshiba Portégé R830, which is this year’s improved version of the R700.
The ultraportable Portégé R830-138 has a Core i5-2520M processor and even provides a DVD SuperMulti drive along with integrated 3G. The code you want is PT321E-01F00YEN. Toshiba’s price is close to £1,500 but you can buy it at a discount. There’s also a Core i7 version, the R830-10Q (PT321E-00P00YEN), which costs almost £2,000. You can still pick up versions of the R700-182 (PT310E-06U02KEN) for around £1,000, but the Toshiba Satellite R830 is probably a better choice. This is a small business version of the Portégé R830 at half the price (£699), though without the 3G option.
The Toshiba Portégé and similar machines come pre-installed with Microsoft Windows 7, so you would have to install Ubuntu yourself.
If you want a laptop with Ubuntu already installed, the most obvious example is the Meenee (as in “miny mo”) MNB737, which Amazon.co.uk is currently selling for £225 (ie £50 off). It has a 13.3in screen and 2GB of memory, and is light at 1.3kg. However, it only has an Intel Atom N455 processor, and battery life is quoted as 3.5 hours, which is low by current netbook standards. Still, it does come with Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook edition pre-installed, and could be a good choice for some users.
Alternatively, you could check the Lenovo laptops sold by Linux Emporium, which come with “Ubuntu Maverick Meerkat (10.10) by default”, though other versions can be installed. Options range from the old Ideapad S10-2-3 netbook (£353 but out of stock) to the ThinkPad-style X301 (£1,907). The Lenovo X100e-2 (£485) netbook might be a reasonable option, but its 1.6GHz Athlon Neo MV-40 is far from being nippy, and the hardware doesn’t look very good value at the price.
One advantage of buying from Linux Emporium (and other suppliers that readers will no doubt add in comments) is that you don’t have to worry about finding Linux drivers and so on, but Lenovo/IBM machines have traditionally been pretty well supported by the Linux community. Although you can install Ubuntu on anything, I’d recommend sticking to major brands such as Lenovo/IBM, Toshiba and, more recently, Samsung. Even then, you should do a few web searches before buying a particular model, to find out if other Linux users have run into problems.
If you drop the built-in 3G from your wishlist, there are two other options. First, many laptops can be fitted with a 3G card, such as Dell’s Wireless 5530 and 5540 mobile broadband cards. (Search the web for: 3G HSDPA card.) Second, you can take the cheap option and use a USB plug-in modem, commonly referred to as a “dongle”. These are cheap and may come free with mobile broadband deals. High-street phone shops will even throw in a “free” netbook or laptop on a two-year deal. Dongles are tediously slow to connect, but a lot of people use them, including me.
Bear in mind that dongles may have on-board connection software, and almost all of them are designed for Windows. Before buying one, double-check that it will work with your chosen version of Ubuntu.
Of course, if you also drop the requirement for Ubuntu (or no operating system) then there are hundreds of choices, depending on how much you want to spend. You could look at something like the Lenovo Z370, which sells for £436 on Amazon.co.uk. It has a nippy spec – 2.1GHz Core i3-2310M, 4GB of memory, 500GB hard drive, DVD-RW optical drive – but it’s not a lightweight at 2kg. The Acer Aspire Timeline X and Asus U ranges offer lighter options with better battery life, but without the DVD drive.
Later this year, there should be some more interesting options available as part of Intel’s Ultrabook project, which is aimed at producing mass market ultraportables that cost less than a MacBook Air.
Finally, you could also consider the Samsung Chromebook, which is aimed at your sort of usage. It represents Google’s attempt to do everything through its own Chrome web browser, and the £399 version includes mobile broadband from 3 (at a cost, after you’ve used the first 3GB of data). However, it’s basically just a locked-down netbook, and depends on you having either a good 3G connection or preferably free Wi-Fi available.
If you are techie enough to want to install Ubuntu, you may find Chrome OS’s (entirely deliberate) limitations somewhat frustrating. Also, I think there’s already a more versatile alternative: a netbook or laptop that can boot either Windows or the almost-instant Splashtop version of Linux. As I’ve pointed out before, this is available under various names. The Asus version is called ExpressGate, while Acer calls it InstaView, HP and Sony call it QuickWeb, and Lenovo calls it QuickStart.
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