Black Friday is going to be here before we know it. And historically, that’s been a good day to snag a deal on consumer electronics. But does that hold for computers?
I’ve studied many Black Friday computers–I have two Black Friday specials from years’ past sitting in the basement as I write–and I have to say that when it comes to those, you’re getting what you pay for. Yes, they cost less than computers from September and October. But there’s a good reason for it.
The Hewlett-Packard computers I have sitting on my desk at work (I have two of them) both have motherboards in them manufactured by Asus. Asus has been making premium motherboards since the early 1990s. In those early days, they built motherboards without the assistance or blessing of Intel, the large CPU company. In the early days of the 486, Intel discovered a bug in either the CPU or one of the supporting chips. Asus discovered the bug independently, and devised a workaround before Intel’s own engineers were able to come up with one. Suffice it to say, Asus’ engineers know their stuff, and many computer makers, including HP, concluded that it’s cheaper to buy boards from Asus than to try to make something better themselves.
Normally, HP puts Asus motherboards in their systems, and for good reason. But when you buy a Black Friday computer, you’re rolling the dice. In order to meet the price point the store wants, HP will throw second-rate boards in their systems. I’ve seen other manufacturers stoop lower still, and put motherboards from disreputable makers in their systems.
They also put slower, cheaper hard drives in. Rather than using mainstream disks that spin at 7200 RPM, they use 5400 RPM drives. While 5400 RPM drives are every bit as reliable as 7200s–perhaps a little bit more so–they’re at least 25% slower, and you’ll notice the difference because it will take 25% longer for the computer to boot and to load programs and save your documents.
What I’m telling you is that you can get a Black Friday deal any other day of the year. Just walk into any locally owned computer store, and tell them you want a computer built with the cheapest parts they can find. And most likely, they’ll try to talk you out of it. They’ll probably tell you that you’ll be back 13 or 14 months with a computer that’s giving you problems. They’ll probably tell you the computer won’t run as fast as a similar computer built even with mainstream parts. And they’ll probably tell you that in a year or two when you want to upgrade the system, you’ll probably end up having to replace more parts in the long run. If you decide you want a better video card, you may find the motherboard doesn’t have the right type of slot that the card needs, and the power supply may not have enough wattage to power the card safely. So instead of just buying a video card, you end up having to replace the motherboard and power supply along with it. And since the Windows license is usually tied to the motherboard, you may end up having to buy a new copy of Windows on top of all that.
Suddenly, you’re spending $250-$300 in order to put a $100 video card into a computer that cost $350 in the first place.
That’s why those two old Black Friday computers are sitting in my basement. It was cheaper to replace them than it was to upgrade them. So the original owners sold them to me for pocket change.
If you want a steal of a deal on a computer, I recommend you buy an off-lease business PC instead. Right now, business-class PCs with AMD CPUs in them are dirt cheap. I’m talking $200 or less for a system with a 2 GHz or faster CPU, usually at least 1 GB of RAM, and lots of room for expansion. There’s nothing wrong with AMD CPUs, but they just don’t hold their resale value very well. It takes every ounce of willpower I have to keep from running out and buying two or three–one for upstairs, one for the basement, and one to tinker with. I’m writing this on an off-lease PC I bought almost three years ago.
Not all off-lease business PCs have the expansion options that the nicer PCs sitting in stores right now have, but it will give better options down the line than a Black Friday special, and it will be more reliable too. And you can get them year-round from places like compgeeks.com and microcenter.com, or search your local Craigslist. There’s a guy near me who always has off-lease PCs for sale that he’s fixed up, sometimes for less than $100.