I need a laptop, and advice

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting in my car, waiting for the kids to finish their after-school activities, and it occurs to me that I could put this time to use by writing the Great American Novel. So I’m thinking about getting a laptop.

But I don’t need a whizbang, surf-the-internet, massage-your-photos, burn CDs type laptop. What I need is a light simple machine that can run Microsoft Works and write to a 1.4 Mb floppy (yes, some of us fossils still use them). That’s about all it has to do. Oh, and display a picture of Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as wallpaper.

Oh, and I don’t want to spend a lot of money, either; this is pretty much a whim, and I’d feel really uncomfortable spending more than, say, $300 on a lousy whim.

So I guess I’m looking at a used computer. I’m partial to Macs, since I’ve had good luck at home with them, but I suppose a Windows machine would be okay, I guess, as long as it was stone cold reliable, never crashed, started every time, and I didn’t have to reconfigure my sys.doc.furb file to resolve a driver error in my PCB bus logic rebob a loobop cache every time I tried to save a file. I find that sort of thing astoundingly frustrating, and I’d probably just drop the whole thing in the nearest trash can.

Oh, and I don’t want something with some outlandishly expensive and unavailable battery pack, either.

The Straight Dope must be full of computer whizzes who have all the lingo down pat and all the specifications memorized and all the word-on-the-street assimilated into their worldview; what would you recommend?

Fifteen minutes left on this one.

"APPLE COMPUTER MACINTOSH POWERBOOK 3400C WITH FLOPPY & CD DRIVES. 2 GB capacity internal hard drive, PowerPC 603 processor running at 200 MHz, 48 MB built-in memory, Mac OS 9.1. Unit is in excellent condition mechanically & cosmetically. "

I would think that you could get a laptop in the 500-600 MHZ range for about 3-400.00. That would be an Intel based machine. I bought one for that amount. Do a Google Search for used MAC laptops.

Del makes a (new) unit that 749 after rebates and comes with a new warranty. It's about your best deal in the range of what you're looking for. An auto-air power adapter is probably going to run you another 40-50 or so.

Inspiron 1100 Notebook. I have purchased, sold and serviced many notebooks in my time. I do not suggest getting used notebook when you can buy a new one at this price.

I would suggest a PII level machine (which would include AMD K6s and some Celerons). 300-500Mhz. Ram is quite important. 64Mb minimum. If it doesn’t have much ram, at least get one that uses standard SODIMMs rather than manuf. specialty ($) ram. Disk space is not usually a big deal. 2Gigs is fine for just toying around. And it’s not a big cost to upgrade to 10Gigs or so.

Screen size is a good thing to think about. 800x600 minimum. 1024x768 is much nicer, but more $s of course.

It is up to you about other issues. Do you need sound? A CD drive? Stick pointer vs. touchpad? USB?

If you are really trying to scrimp and just have some fun, here’s what you can expect at a given level.

486 machines. Egad, hardly worth waiting for them to boot.

P100-150s. Can run certain things nicely enough. Basic word processing, e.g. But browsers, even Opera, are really slow. I use the text only Lynx on such machines whenever I can. If you really don’t care about browsing, this might work. In fact, I am selling one on eBay right now…

I have a P266 with 64Mb of memory. It does “okay” on most things. It even plays video full screen well enough. But I think I love its big screen most. Watching a SVCD movie makes a long plane flight just “fly” by. It started out as a stripped parts machine and now is fully working for under $100 total. (I’m pretty good at scrounging.)

Note that in a lot of threads of this type, certain people go off and suggest you just spend more money. I don’t know why. I look at the OP from the point of view of “I just want to spend a small amount of money to see what a laptop would be good for.”

For a used laptop, the two biggest concerns are the battery and the screen. A bad screen effectively makes it a parts machine. Batteries cost Real Money.

As for eBay, watch out for password protected machines. It can be hard/impossible to bypass them plus there is the concern that you are buying a hot machine. Does it actually fully boot up into the OS?

If you are good at fixing computer things and such, you can get something for nearly nothing at a garage sale or thrift store and fix it up. E.g., I bought a P150 that didn’t work for $3, fixed it, and sold it on eBay recently for more than $100. And then I turn that money around to get something nicer, etc. (One of my kids and some friends bought a laptop lot off eBay, nice IBMs. Kept one apiece and sold the rest, making profits on the whole thing.)

There is some good advice already in this thread. I purchased a reconditioned Dell PIII on eBay for around $300 several months ago. The seller was Dell Financial Services. I assume they are off-lease machines. I am absolutely delighted with the machine and the price.

You can get a used Mac 1400C or 3400C for about $300 or so. They have a floppy drive and will run MS Works or the newer and better Appleworks or the older version of that known as Clarisworks.

Thinking about your context for writing–I assume it is in a vehicle–it just seems awkward physically. Won’t a pad of paper and a pencil meet your needs well enough?

I use a Fujitsu Lifebook (PC) laptop. It’s 333 MHz, 6 GB hard drive, 95 MB RAM. I.e., not even remotely top-of-the-line, but more than I need for surfing the Web, writing e-mails, composing awful screenplays, and storing my digital photos.

When my old computer died, I went to a computer shop downtown in an old warehouse and said, “What do you have in laptops?” Then I talked the guy down from $500 to $400 for this one, and I’m thrilled with it. It’s been my only home computer for nearly two years, and has given me no trouble at all.

One caveat: If you’re getting a laptop, test the keyboard thoroughly before you buy. Some of them are very small and counterintuitive, and that makes typing a major chore.

Thank you all for the advice.
ftg, I’m not really enough of a computer geek to be able to assemble bits and have them work afterward. But I appreciate your input, especially the thought about password protection.
Geoduck, I’d prefer to have my writing in a computer so I can obsessively edit and rearrange it over and over again; but you’re right, it would be awkward in a car, and I confess I hadn’t thought that through very well.

Something else to consider:

While $300 is at the very low end of what you can expect to get even a used laptop for, it’s very near the top of the line of a good PDA, many of which come with optional keyboards that can be added.

You’d get longer battery life, you wouldn’t have to wait for your OS to boot (which is going to take a good long while in a $300 laptop), you’ll be getting something new and in good condition, and you’ll be able to download your work directly and easily to your main computer (and it’ll be a heck of a lot faster than a floppy transfer).

the downside, of course, is that the smaller screen and keyboard will make it more difficult for actually writing.