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Through numerous bad experiences, I have learned that the most likely cause of laptop "failure" is the lack of updated drivers for new operating systems. As an example, I have a perfectly good Thinkpad T42 at home which runs Windows 7 just fine for my purposes except that no compatible ATI video drivers are available, and the generic drivers have flicker effects.

I recently saw an ASUS laptop which looked quite nice except that I would be beholden to them to release ATI video driver updates customized for it. And, I can't trust them to do that for more than six months.

What laptops (manufacturer/line) should I consider so that I could expect at least a couple years of frequent updates? I plan on running Windows 7 and installing whatever successor comes out.

I like Intel components (especially WiFi) because I can install their drivers directly from them, and they have a long history of providing updates for years after shipping a particular component. More generally, components from companies which are likely to update drivers frequently are good as long as I can install the component manufacturer-provided drivers without laptop-specific customization (like the ATI drivers).

Also, if a component can be replaced easily, I am less concerned. For example, Dell stopped pumping out updated drivers for one of its mini-PCI WiFi cards. The solution was to buy an Intel replacement on eBay for $12! That's fine. I can deal with that.

So, what laptops should I consider so that I'm not likely to be stuck between a rock and a hard place?

Edit:

So, I priced out a "business class" laptop and found it was 2x as expensive as a consumer laptop with much better specs. Five years ago, the penalty was probably 20%. Now, the leading edge stuff comes out for consumer versions first.

Based on this, I'm now thinking that it's most rational to choose a consumer-grade laptop with the idea that it will only last a couple of years. When the cost $600 instead of $1600, it's not that unreasonable. And, if possible, I'll choose components that are individually upgradable or are from vendors with reputations for good driver support. It's sad that laptops are now semi-disposable, but maybe that's a good thing in the long run.

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Just curious are you looking for windows or linux, or doesn't matter? ASUS is known for having good linux support, as well as some HPS. It all comes down to the make of the hardware, for instance, Intel and Atheros wifi have linux drivers were Trendnet doesn't. If your talking about windows, I find HP usually is pretty up to date, just so long as its not an N-Trig Tablet pc from HP. Are you looking for anything in particular? –  alpha1 Mar 11 '10 at 16:22
    
Windows primarily. I agree that a lot of this would be a non-issue if I was running a Linux distro. –  ShabbyDoo Mar 11 '10 at 17:08
    
See superuser.com/questions/21092/… , Driver Heaven may be able to help you with that ATi driver problem. –  kmarsh Mar 11 '10 at 20:15

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

As a general rule, I would recommend a business-class line of laptops. A good example might be Dell's Latitude (3 of which I owned) and Lenovo Thinkpad T-series (one of which i own presently).

And here's my reasoning: Most of these companies have a certain (surprisingly low) margin for every laptop they sell. Their goal then, is to sell a certain amount of model x, and then switch to a shinier, newer model y. Their commitment to support "older" models (i.e. from the last holiday season - roughly 8 months back) dwindles over time. Add to that the need to dedicate manpower and resources to supporting, testing and developing for a platform/device/technology that they have already replaced in the current model, and you'll understand why you're being treated this way.

Now, I'm in now way making excuses for these companies, and they bring on themselves the well-deserved ire of their consumers and the droves of ex-clients ditching them for their competitors and filling the blogosphere with fiery reviews. I just have some inside knowledge having had Dell for a customer in the past.

Now, a business class laptop has to meet different, higher standards. It's usually bought in volume (hundreds or thousands of machines - depending on the customer), has to survive longer (your average company only replaces its hardware once in 3-5 years) and, unlike us puny private consumers, large corporations get much better treatment, under the (usually justified) assumption that if there are no big issues and complaint, the hardware manufacturer would get the next big deal as well.

This is the business reasoning. But other than that, business-class laptops are usually more robust, depend on more well-tested technologies (which is a con if you're looking for that shiny, new connector), and the components will usually come from a well known supplier (Intel and ATI feature heavily). Of course, the price will be higher as well. But support and drivers will be kept alive for as long as the current generation is in the hand of the large customers. Case in point: the Dell Latitude D series has been around for 4-5 years and is still actively supported. Certain Dell Studio models (a consumer model) have no new drivers for years now.

If you're looking for a clear-cut recommendation, my current favorite is the Lenovo T400. You can configure it to fit your needs and it's not overly expensive.

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I've awarded this response as the answer although I really liked everybody's contributions. See edit above for my conclusions –  ShabbyDoo Mar 15 '10 at 20:53

Nvidia has also started publishing drivers to the public after getting fed up with OEM's that wouldn't release drivers in a timely manner.

Granted, some of these driver turn out to be rather shitty but you always have the option to roll back or download an older version.

I agree with you about the Intel wireless drivers. Unfortunately, my Intel wireless card isn't supported by the connectivity program that let's you turn your wireless into a hotspot (Windows 7 feature).

I've been using DriverMax to update drivers on the 5 machines we have. It actually works quite well, but if you have more than one machine you are better off buying the subscription since the free version will only let you download 2 drivers per day.

I guess the moral of this post is that it isn't any particular OEM as much as it is the component manufacturers that you need to worry about. Some are much better than others when it comes to providing driver updates.

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I just tried DriverMax. Really cool. Also, good to hear about Nvidia solving this problem. Video drivers are my biggest fear, so maybe I should look for a laptop w/ Nvidia discrete graphics. Although, since I'm not playing games, maybe the IntelHD stuff would be good enough. –  ShabbyDoo Mar 11 '10 at 17:39
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Yea, my laptop has an ATI card and ATI has never offered any real support for laptops, letting the OEMs do it... (usually badly). Found, though, that you can extract the driver from the desktop version and install it on laptops too... –  BBlake Mar 11 '10 at 18:36
    
@gadzooks64: A slight disagreement - I've used NVidia's drivers on my Dell laptop for years because every time I try to use Dell's drivers, they're lousy and the NVidia works at least 4 times as well as the oem. Never have I gotten a bad NVidia driver save downloading an alpha of their newest release. –  Tom Mar 11 '10 at 21:08
    
@Tom I give props to Nvidia for constantly publishing upgraded drivers. However, I have run into a couple that just did not work well so I rolled back to a previous version that did work. Recently Nvidia had to pull a driver because it was causing overheating and failure for some people playing demanding video games. Nvidia isn't perfect but they are far better than the other video supplier at supplying updated drivers. –  Zooks64 Mar 12 '10 at 14:24

Unfortunately pretty much all laptop vendors operate this way. They will support the machine with new drivers for only so long before they will not anymore. In a lot of circumstances like these, though, you can usually find a modified, substitute or generic driver that will work well enough when moving to a new OS.

For instance, my HP ZD8060 laptop never had drivers released for Vista or 7, but I managed to upgrade it to Win7 through a couple of minor workarounds I found for the video driver and the wireless. Now it works quite well with Win7.

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It used to be that the laptops aimed at corps (Thinkpads. etc.) would at least have updates available for as long as a typical lease period (used to be three years). Not so sure anymore, and I've read that Lenovo has really dropped the level of support compared to what IBM offered. –  ShabbyDoo Mar 11 '10 at 17:08

Avoid Broadcom and Realtek components, go for Intel. One laptop model from a major manufacturer may well have different components depending on how much you option up.

Corporate targeted laptops have longer and better support, but cost more, often much more.

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The different components thing is tough when many vendors, especially for the consumer models, don't specify specific components. Given that the driver downloads for a particular model number often contain drivers of a particular type (WiFi, etc.) for multiple vendors, I suspect they may be purposefully vague to allow substitutions mid-product cycle. –  ShabbyDoo Mar 11 '10 at 20:57

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