Cheap laptops and tablets: September 2011

My brother in law told me he saw an 8-inch Vizio wifi-only tablet running Android at Costco for $285. Its reviews aren’t exactly stellar, but if you just want a basic tablet, it seems to be OK. I’d wait a few months and see what Amazon’s tablet plans are, though.

He also asked about laptops. And there’s some good stuff going on in the low end there too.

This week Micro Center offers several laptops for under $300, with an Emachines eME443-BZ602 for as low as $229. At that price range, be glad if you get dual cores, and 2 GB of RAM and a small HDD is the norm, but these will outrun netbooks, and give you a better keyboard to boot. These tend to be in-store only, and some models are refurbs.

On a more national level, Best Buy has an Acer Aspire AS4250-BZ637 laptop for $240. It too is very low-end (1 GHz dual core, 2 GB RAM, 250 GB HDD, 14″ display) and may very well just be an eME443-BZ602 with an Acer label on it, but, again, it’s better than a netbook, and an inexpensive option for replacing an aging laptop at the very least.

Minimizing issues out of the box

Early reports on the Acer/Emachines laptops suggest they’re decent, once you update drivers and stuff like that. A lot of people who buy them may not ever think of that, unfortunately. But for someone who’s savvy enough to update drivers, or perhaps plug the machine into a LAN and let it update drivers semi-automagically, they’re probably OK. I’d also suggest wiping the hard drive and reinstalling Windows, frankly. At that price, they’re probably loaded with a lot of questionable stuff. And, finally, to minimize other possible DOA issues, turn power management off completely (Control Panel -> System and Security -> Power Options), plug it into the wall, and leave it running for at least 24 hours. If you want to be really thorough, make it run through Prime95 for those 24 hours.

A thorough burn-in does a good job of locating issues quickly and can even correct them, believe it or not. I’ve been doing this more than 20 years and I’ve found it helps.

Upgrade potential

Helpfully, they seem to already be running 64-bit Windows. The factory configuration can’t take much advantage of that, but when you put 8 GB of RAM in it, at least it’ll use it. That tells me Acer did a little bit of market research.

And long-term, these laptops probably would be just fine with 8 GB of RAM (under $50) and an SSD installed. The video performance will be better than you’re used to seeing at this price point, and thing like web browsing and office productivity apps tend to be I/O-bound more than CPU-bound. The upgrades will cost nearly as much as the laptops themselves originally did if purchased on sale, but I’d rather have a $229 laptop with $190 worth of upgrades than something that was a $400 laptop in the first place. Nobody’s putting SSDs in sub-$500 laptops yet. Memory is cheap, so I’d think about upgrading the RAM around Christmastime, and either watch for a sale on an SSD, or buy the SSD sometime in 2012 since SSD prices look to continue to drop. Making DDR3 memory is getting close to a break-even proposition, so more manufacturers may shift production to flash memory to improve profits. That, in turn, will likely lead to costlier PC memory next year but cheaper SSDs and tablets.

And if you missed out on this sale on Labor Day, look for it again during the Christmas season.

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