Which laptop should I buy for college that can last 3-4 years?
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All of them will last, if you take good, loving care. :)
I switched to a ThinkPad x120e last year. It's a small, low end notebook. ThinkPads are generally well-constructed machines since they are produced for business users. However, they can be more expensive than notebooks with similar features from other companies. I have never heard anybody complaining about longevity of a ThinkPad.
One brand I never recommend to anybody is Acer, based on experiences of friends. Most of my friends who had Acer notebooks were disappointed with the quality of material used. One of the common problems was that hinges of those laptops tended to crack somewhat easily, which is worrying considering that hinges are what hold the screen and the main body together. The only good thing about Acer is that their computers are cheap.
p.s. My Asus notebook's hinges also got cracked after 7 years of heavy use. I removed the screen from the notebook, connected it to an external monitor and put it in my living room to use as a media center. It's still working fine.
It's a bit out of your price range, but you really do get what you pay for, and unless you're really not using it that much I'd be pretty impressed to see many laptops in that price range last all four years.
Every single one of my friends with Dell laptops didn't even make it through sophomore year without hard drive issues. I had a Toshiba and have to buy a new laptop for my senior year. People I know who had Apple laptops freshman year all had the same laptops senior year. I know a couple hard core Windows fans who also kept Thinkpads all four years, but most of them had multiple laptops so I would still recommend Apple. I can't speak of Acer or Asus because they were not major players when I was in college, but speaking from experience, a solid laptop can live through the madness of four years of everyday debauchery and abuse. Budget laptops simply will not.
(btw i used gadget2cents.com to help me to find this laptop)
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The X200-series from Lenovo are a robust, portable answer to your needs IMO.
You could e.g. get an X220 - last year's model, put an SSD into it, and add a warranty uplift pack later. That's probably going to put it slightly above your budget but it will not be far off IMO. $5-600 should get you a used i5 X220 (make sure a webcam is mentioned in the specs - business notebooks allow you to leave off cameras and many of the most basic specs lack one), then e.g. you can add a $275 4-year pickup and return uplift say next year.
I'd also highly advise picking up an SSD especially as they're really coming down in price and the exchange is simple on a Thinkpad - it just makes so much difference to the immediacy of usage of the machine that I could not use a machine with a hard disk nowadays.
The advice from the Apple-centric guys is correct in that buying cheap won't get you a reliable machine, but the key fact is that applies anywhere else, not just Apple - and buying at the same level as Apple in the PC world will get you a machine that's better in one or more ways (not that most consumers - who Apple rightly approaches as being unable to make an informed choice but have enough of an ego to believe otherwise - realise that).
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