I use laptops almost exclusively now for both professional and personal work (I have four that I use on a regular basis and two others that are “mostly” retired). I know this may send a shiver down your spine but I’ve found that it actually pays _not_ to cheap out up front as it is usually a game of diminishing returns when it comes to repairing and/or upgrading laptops. (I had one machine – a Dell – where a memory upgrade and a replacement keyboard would have come to 80% of the cost of replacing the entire machine – with another Dell with a faster CPU, even more memory and a bigger hard drive.) I’ve found the best policy is to decide how much you want to spend (okay – in your case, how much you can be coerced into spending…), get the best machine you can in your price range, and live with it for several years to come, amortizing the upfront costs over the life of the machine.
On the lifetime front, I’ve found that Apple hardware is way ahead of the competition (and also carries the biggest initial price tag). I’m rough on laptops and can wear out a keyboard in about 18-24 months. Dells are particularly weak here but I’ve also done in Compaqs and HPs. Sony and Tosheba hardware tends to hold up better but if something _DOES_ go wrong with either of them I’ve found them to excessively pricy (in both parts, labor, and response time) compared to other vendors. To give you a basis of comparision, I’m lucky to get two to three years out of a Windows based laptop (either due to hardware failures or insufficuent zorch to keep up with the latest software enhancements; In contrast, I have a old Mac PowerBook that picked up in 1997 and (other than a dead battery) the thing is still a wonderful little workhorse. My next laptop will be a MacBook Pro running both MacOS and WinXP Pro; it’s expensive, but I fully expect the machine to meet my needs without significant further expense for several years to come (plenty of third party software, built in camera and microphone, plenty of memory and disk space, reasonable weight , great video & music editing, speech recognition, networking and development capabilities, etc)
Also, don’t forget to think of your next book as a small business. That means that your laptop, if used predominately for business is a capital expenditure that (potentially) can favorably impact the bottom line of your taxes.
But if you’re more into minimizing your current bottom line and you’re a saavy shopper when it comes to computers, you’re heading into prime time for the used computer market. Craigslist has lots of laptops (many less than two year’s old) put up for sale by graduating college seniors who either just got an nice upgrade machine as: a) a graduation present; b) a signing bonus with their new job; or c) a self reward for landing the first real paycheck of their careers. Machines formerly owned by gamers tend to be particularly sweet in that hard core game adicts tend to buy top of the line machines on an annual basis and take very good care of them in the interrum (though many gamers still swear by minitowers (with neon light package) over laptops).
The other way to defray the cost of a new machine is to do a “campus collection” (another gamer trick). Scout out private/posh college campuses the day the dorms close. Lots of students throw out older machines (particularly desktops and towers because they’re a pain to pack and move compared to having a new machine shipped to them in the fall directly from their on-line purchase). This doesn’t help with getting a new laptop directly, but if you have the time, storage and a little bit of know-how, you can snag these discards for free, test them out, mix and match parts where needed, and sell the viable ones for $100-$200 on Craigslist. I had one student (a commuter with understanding parents who didn’t mind him running a small computer shop out of his garage) who brought in around $5000 a year selling Ivy League cast offs to inner city high school kids and kept dozens of viable (if somewhat passe) machines out of landfills in the process.
BTW, one other tidbit that might impact your decision making process, I’ve been working with a development team that’s been working with Vista since _before_ the commercial release, and based on their findings, I wouldn’t trust it with my grocery list let alone my data or my writings. Compared to XP-Pro and MacOS-X, on issues of security, data integrity, performance and robustness, Vista is a giant leap backward into the 1990’s as far as operating systems go. Micro$oft should have spent a bit less time on funky graphics and put a little more emphasis on basic functionality and reliability.