All this talk today about cheap notebooks like the Sotec 3120x begs another question: Who should buy one?
Nearly six years ago, I published a column in the Columbia Missourian newspaper. My working title was 101 Reasons NOT to Buy a Laptop but a cooler-headed editor toned it down. I pointed out that you can buy twice the computer for the same amount of money, and laptops are hard to upgrade and they break a lot and you shouldn’t buy one without an extended warranty. (I was shocked to read that I’d said that way back then.)

All of that’s still true today. Except for the twice as much computer for the same amount of money bit. Thank goodness that’s changed.

Now you can buy twice as much computer for half the money.

Back then my job was to set up and fix laptops. I didn’t actually use one very much. I’ve been using one nearly every day for the past year and I’ve found some things to like about laptops now.

Portability. Duh. But this means not only can you take it with you, but you can stash it easily when company’s coming over.

Small size. A desktop computer’s going to take up most of the desk. My current computer desk has more usable space on it than my kitchen counter, which is nice because that gives me some room to work. Or put more computers on it. Guess which I do? But anyway, I can set up a laptop on a small desk and still have space to work.

Quiet. A lot of desktop PCs have three, even four fans in them. They make a lot of noise. Laptops have one fan and it doesn’t always even go all the time. Go back to a desktop and you’ll discover you’ve forgotten how much you like quiet. (Apologies to Charlie for stealing one of his lines.)

Gorgeous display. Another coworker came in today to work on my laptop (more on that in a bit) and to complain about another coworker. He was griping about how his laptop display looked when he hooked it up to an external monitor. I asked why anyone would hook up a laptop to a CRT. I guess it makes you look important.

Flat-panel LCD displays are gorgeous. No flicker, great color saturation, perfect focus, really easy on the eyes. They don’t update fast enough to be good for 120-fps 3D gaming, but for everything else, they’re fabulous. Staring at a CRT for 8 hours wears me out. Staring at an LCD for 8 hours has no effect on me. I’ve got a nice 19-inch CRT–an NEC, and it’s one of the professional line, not the consumer line–and it’s great. But I’ll take my laptop’s 13″ LCD.

You can get a similar effect by connecting an LCD to a desktop, but you’ll get digital converted to analog and back on an inexpensive one, which will affect display quality ever so slightly. A laptop is all digital, from video chip to screen.

The downside. After living with one, I’ve changed my tune a little. It used to be when someone said they were getting a laptop, I’d cringe the same way I would if they told me they were getting a sex change. I don’t do that anymore.

But there are still issues. I’ve broken my laptop twice in the past four months. And I treat mine well. The first was a hard drive. The second was the power connector–a piece of plastic snapped off. You’re looking at a motherboard swap to fix that one, in this age of people not knowing how to solder.

Laptop keyboards and mice take getting used to. Every time my girlfriend comes over and needs to use a computer, she sits down at the laptop and asks me for a “real mouse.”

And I miss my IBM clackety keyboards when I’m using a laptop. (I suspect Charlie would get really annoyed if I used one of those at work though, since he’s in the cube next to me, and the way I type, those keyboards can overpower fan noise. Or phone conversations. Or earthquakes.)

Upgrades remain a problem. I’ve got an IBM Thinkpad 600. Great display, great keyboard, and it’s small and light. But it’s slow. The memory tops out at some weird amount–I don’t think I can put 256 megs in it. CPU upgrades are all but out of the question. I can put a faster hard drive in it, but desktops give a lot more options. Even in my old original IBM AT case I can shoehorn a newer motherboard with an 800 MHz VIA C3 processor, and I can put in a 15K SCSI hard drive if I really want to. And that’s a 17-year-old case. I’ve got better upgrade options with a 17-year-old IBM PC/AT than I do with a four-year-old IBM Thinkpad!

So should anyone buy this new generation of cheap laptops? Well, remember, “cheap” is relative. Even when you can finagle into buying one for $800 through creative use of coupons, that’s still a pretty serious chunk of change.

And because they break as much as ever, I have trouble recommending a laptop as an only computer. If you’ve already got a desktop and plan to keep it and can afford a cheap snazzy laptop, then by all means go for it. You’ll love the freedom to move around. If you can’t afford $800 plus the extended warranty, wait a month or six. They’ll come down. I believe you’ll be able to buy a budget laptop for $599 by this time next year. Possibly even $499.

But if you’re buying your first computer, I think you’re better off with a low-end desktop and a nice flat-panel LCD display. The LCD will outlive the desktop PC, and the desktop PC will give you a lot more upgrade options. And as someone who’s been playing with these things for 20 years, trust me: You’ll want upgrade options.