I am personally somewhat leery of Dell Inspiron
notebooks. If you get one, spring for the extended 2-3 year warranty.
In the past couple of years, I've owned two of them (a 1420 and a 1520). I have family members (for which I provide the tech support) that have owned another three or four of them (1525's, 1720's, 15's). Within 12-18 months, all but one of them became untrustworthy and generally not usable.
The 1520's LCD backlight died with about 2 months left on the 1 year warranty. Dell replaced it, without hassle. Three months later (outside of warranty), the hard drive died. I replaced it on my own. Two months after that it started suffering random lock-ups, even after full reinstalls of XP, Vista, or Ubuntu. New memory didn't help. Then the LCD started occasionally winking out on me. At that point, I was done with it.
The 1420's LCD screen started randomly just flipping to a red screen about 4 months outside of the one-year warranty. It got worse and worse over the next few months until it ceased functioning all together. The machine still works, but only with an external monitor.
The family members' Inspirons have suffered similar fates. The LCD died on one of them, and another one had a hard drive failure as well. My sister currently has a 9-month old 15xx. It's working fine now, but time will tell.
On the other hand...
Us upper-level software developers at work all have Dell Precision
workstations. We like them. They have proven to be reliable, even when beat-upon as temporary database & web servers. Our in-the-field sales team all use Dell Latitude
notebooks on a three-year rotation cycle. Generally speaking, they hold up pretty well. We do occasionally have hard drive crashes or keyboard problems, but I'd guess that about 90% of them last the full three-year cycle and are still in "good" shape when they return. Other than batteries, which only last a couple of years (but that's normal).
. . .
I have a friend who spent like $4,000 on an Alienware notebook a couple of years ago. He had more problems with that thing, and regretted spending that much. We told him he was nuts. It was a beast of a machine when it wasn't randomly overheating and locking up.
I've had dealings with a couple of Toshiba notebooks. My sister owned one for a couple of years until it's started to become untrustworthy with random lock-ups. It was a good notebook until it wasn't. My brother-in-law used to have a Toshiba notebook too. It worked really well for a couple of years until it was dropped and the LCD ceased working. Hardly the Toshiba's fault. But on the other hand again, a co-worker bought a high-end gaming Toshiba notebook about 3 months ago and has had a lot of problems with it as well. Heat related lock-ups when gaming. Best Buy & the Geek Squad has worked to fix it but can't, and so they recently replaced it with an equivalent Acer model. No idea of the longevity of it, but the Acer seems to be a nice notebook.
After the Dell's died, my wife wanted a Mac. It worked so pleasingly well that I soon followed. She has a Macbook Air and I have a 15" Macbook Pro. The Air is about a year old and my Pro is about 6 months old. No, not old enough to really gauge long-term longevity. But the build quality and aesthetics of both surpass anything I've ever experienced in the PC world. Everything from the tactile response of the keys and touchpad to the resistance of the screen's hinges are pleasing to me. Both machines have been absolutely flawless hardware & software wise. They're both a joy to use. And with Parallels or Bootcamp for those couple of stubborn Windows-only apps that I have, neither of us can imagine going back to the PC-only world. I may just be growing old and tired of the endless tinkering and patching of a Windows machine (which I still have to do at work, of course...), but I've found myself very much enjoying the "it just works" ethos of owning a Mac for home. YMMV, of course.
If you want to really get some good opinions, check out the forums on NotebookReview.com, http://forum.notebookreview.com/index.php
. They have broad, general-discussion forums, and specific, model-by-model forums for every brand imaginable. It may take a bit of reading & searching, but you can definitely get a feel for what models people like, what they don't like, common problems & solutions, the most cost-effective configurations, where to get good deals, etc.
And for deals, keep an eye on http://www.xpbargains.com.
From first-hand experience, you can save hundreds of dollars by using coupon codes from that site. Dell in particular often has semi-secret coupon codes that will knock 15%, 25%, even 30% off the price of a machine.