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A few short tips on buying laptops

A client came into my cube today seeking advice on laptops. He asked lots of good questions, so I thought I’d share the answers with you.National chains versus local: If you’re staying local, you might get better service from a local shop. In his case, he’s sending a daughter off to college out of state. Better to buy from someone who has a store close to the college.

Recommended brands: Buy what the college recommends, if possible. Why? The college’s technicians are used to working on that equipment and know its quirks and how to get around them. When I was working at Mizzou, we were used to IBMs. When people brought us Dells, sometimes we had problems getting them working. And yes, all laptops have quirks. They’re crankier than desktops.

Extended warranties: As a rule I don’t buy them on electronics equipment. My philosophy is that since I fix computers for a living, I am an extended warranty. Laptops are different. You probably do want the extended warranty because I can almost guarantee something’s going to break a short time after the manufacturer’s warranty goes out.

But here’s a secret. Don’t buy the extended warranty from the salesperson. March up to customer service and ask them about the terms. Get them to go over the fine print with you. Wait in line if you have to. The reason is simple. At least one national chain, whose name I won’t name, has a tendency to tell the salespeople one thing and the customer service people another. Maybe the salesperson says the no-lemon clause kicks in after it breaks three times and the customer service rep says four. Guess who’s word counts? Customer service.

You might also get the name and employee number of the person who tells you the terms of the agreement. It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s probably worth it to protect a $1,500 laptop. When I had a piece of equipment die for the third time a day before the extended warranty expired, I had to fight to get it replaced. In the end, I had to go to a different store with a more agreeable manager.

Cheap laptops: As a general rule I don’t think I trust sub-$1,000 laptops. Too many compromises. Sotec of Japan tried to sell a dirt-cheap laptop a few years ago. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who come here looking for advice on it. For the most part it was a good laptop, but it seems it had a few annoying issues.

Really, the sweet spot tends to be $1,500-$3,000. If you’re paying for it, aim for $1,500. If your employer is paying for it, aim for $3,000 since most companies have a 3-year replacement cycle no matter what the machine originally cost, and in three years the $3,000 laptop will annoy you less.

Used laptops: Don’t do it. People who buy laptops almost always use them until the wheels fall off and won’t go back on again. You might get lucky and get an off-lease laptop from an executive who used it as a status symbol and only powered the thing on twice, but more likely than not, when you buy a used laptop, you’re buying someone else’s problem.

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2 thoughts on “A few short tips on buying laptops”

  1. Good advice, especially regards buying what the the college recommends (the same might also be said if you’re buying something to work with your company). You might add asking their advice on software choices as well. I find the tech people appreciate any effort on your part to make their job of supporting you and your equipment easier (or at least less complicated)

    I’m curious about sub – $1,000 laptops, aren’t they oftentimes just an older model, sometimes repackaged? True they may not be cutting edge but that may not matter to some people. Also since the components have usually been around awhile – aren’t the quirks (and fixes) pretty well known?

    FYI the company formerly known as Sotec is now called Averatec. They still aim for the value market. I don’t know much about their current products but my Sotec and Averatec notebooks are still going strong after 18 months (annoying features and all – but as noted all laptops have their quirks)

    Some things you must love because they’re impossible to like

  2. Yes, sometimes budget laptops are an older model or otherwise built on older technology, when there’s an older technology to offer. The problem is when you’re building a cheap laptop versus a cheap desktop, there isn’t as much selection of components on the low end. If I wanted to build a $349 desktop PC, I can find a $25 CPU to put in it. There is no $25 mobile CPU. Likewise, there is no $50 2.5-inch hard drive (at least not available in any sizeable quantity).

    The CPU makers still see laptops as a high-end product, so when you try to build a cheap laptop, unless you manage to get a blowout on a sizeable quantity of last year’s CPU and chipset, you end up cutting corners somewhere else. Depending on your intent, that can be just fine, but the important thing to remember is that it’s not going to be just a slightly slower version of a $2,000 ThinkPad.

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