Straight talk on cheap laptops

I’ve been getting lots of traffic ever since we started talking about the Sotec 3120x laptop here last week. It looks like an era of inexpensive laptops is about to arrive, because the Sotec isn’t your only choice.
Sam’s Club sells a variant of the 3120x for about the same price as Wal-Mart, but it comes with a 30GB drive in place of the 20.

Steve DeLassus tells me a number of places have been hawking Toshiba Satellite 1115-S103 laptops in the sub-$1000 price range after coupons and rebates and other marketing gyrations. Suggested retail price on it is $1099. Street price should be $1049 or lower, as that’s Toshiba’s price if you buy direct. Toshiba’s offering a $200 mail-in rebate. So at the very worst, you can get a Satellite 1115-S103 for $849 if you buy it direct from Toshiba.

And then I did some checking on a hunch. Dell’s offering its Inspiron 2650C for $899 ($849 through 12/11). HP is offering its Compaq Presario 905us notebook with an Athlon XP 1400, 256 MB RAM, DVD, 14.1″ LCD for $999 with a $100 rebate. The HP Pavilion ze4101 has a faster processor but less memory, for the same price. There are some variants on the HPs and Compaqs out there–you might not find in stores exactly what HP’s selling direct, but you’ll find something awfully close.

The Toshiba and Dell offer a bigger screen (14.1 inches), DVD drives, 256 MB RAM (the Dell has 128), and the other expected gizmos like modem and networking, along with a seemingly faster 1.5 GHz Celeron processor.

Which brings up a point.

The 1.5 GHz Celeron is based on the P4 architecture. Remember, at 1.5 GHz, the P4 is a dog. The Celeron is a castrated P4. The P4-based Celeron doesn’t start to give decent speeds until it hits 2 GHz. Even though the Celeron 1.5 has a 300 MHz advantage over the older P3-based Celeron 1.2, the “slower” Celeron will actually be faster. And less expensive.

The HP/Compaq models offer truly faster AMD Athlon XP CPUs and ATI Radeon mobility video chipsets.

I know people are going to ask me which one to buy. So let’s agonize together.

Durability: Toshiba, Dell, HP and Compaq all had decent service records in the past and there are lots of places that will work on them. Sotec is more of an unknown in the United States at this point.

Dell has traditionally had the best reputation, but their laptops didn’t fare well this year in PC World’s service and reliability roundup. HP and Toshiba were the best of this bunch. Now that HP and Compaq are the same company, the Compaq should fare well too.

Frankly, I’d buy an extended warranty with any of them, and count on it breaking at least once. That’s par for the course with a laptop, especially if you use it for what it’s intended, which is carrying it around a lot.

Performance: The 1.5 GHz Celeron in the Toshiba and Dell models is a notoriously bad performer. The 1.2 GHz Celeron in the Sotec is a good performer but the integrated video will hurt. The HPQ models use AMD Athlon XP CPUs and ATI Radeon Mobility video chipsets. Performance on the latest 3D games will disappoint (but LCD screens in general are bad for 3D gaming). But for light gaming and everything else someone might want to do, the HP and Compaq models will be great.

Input: The Sotec offers a slightly reduced keyboard with an at-times quirky layout. The others offer full-sized keyboards. All use touchpads; they’ll be decent but you’ll probably want to pick up a USB mouse with any of them to use at least part of the time. Touch-typists will prefer anyone but Sotec. Hunt-and-peck types probably won’t care much one way or the other.

Portability: The Sotec weighs 4.4 pounds. The others weigh in at 6.5 or 6.9 pounds. None are hogs, but some people will really like the svelte Sotec. The Sotec has a longer battery life. Advantage: Sotec.

Expandability/extras: The Toshiba, HP and Compaq models offer TV-out, which isn’t something everybody needs, but when you want it, you want it. It allows you to use a big-screen TV for presentations in a pinch. You can connect up a TV to the laptop and do digital slideshows for a bigger audience than can crowd around a laptop screen, which is nice if you’re into that kind of thing. And when hooked up to a TV, it can serve as an emergency DVD player.

The Toshiba offers two PCMCIA slots. Everyone else offers one. HP and Compaq memory maxes out at 1024 MB, while memory on the Toshiba and Dell max out at 512 MB to the Sotec’s 384 MB. HP, Compaq, and Sotec are all using shared video memory, so they’ll steal a little system memory to give to the video chip. Toshiba and Dell aren’t doing this. All have built-in USB 1.1 and networking; none offer built-in Firewire.

HP offers the fastest CPU of the bunch, and CPU upgrades in laptops are always questionable.

Advantage: HP.

Serviceability: The Sotec’s DVD/CD-RW drive and hard drive are bolted in, rather than being plug-in modules. It’ll be a lot harder to fix yourself if need be. On most other companys’ models (I don’t know about any of these for certain), the drives slide out easily for replacement. Replacement CD/DVD drives are a pain to track down after the fact for any laptop more than a year or two old, but the big name brands will almost certainly be easier. If you buy an extended warranty, fixing it is someone else’s problem, at least for a couple of years. Advantage: Everyone but Sotec.

Overall winner: Hard to say. The Sotec is designed to be a subnotebook; the others are entry-level full notebooks. If portability and versatility are important to you, get the Sotec. It’s the only one of the bunch that’ll burn CDs for you at this price point. Keep in mind that the Sotec’s combo DVD/CD-RW drive will wear out quickly if you use it to watch a lot of movies, and that replacing it won’t be terribly easy, as it’s not a slide-in module like costlier notebooks use. If you intend to watch a lot of movies on the Sotec, make sure you buy an extended warranty on it.

The Sotec has a couple of question marks, but it also has an awful lot going for it.

The HP and Compaq models have the best combination of serviceability, expandability, speed, and reliability. I don’t think I’d mess with the Toshiba or Dell unless their prices dropped considerably. Between Compaq and HP, HP gives you the faster CPU, while Compaq gives you the bigger hard drive and more memory. It’s easier to add memory and replace the hard drive than it is to upgrade a laptop CPU; I’d get the HP and add memory to it pretty quickly and plan on replacing its hard drive with a large 5400 RPM model in a couple of years. With its best-of-class CPU and video and upgraded someday with a faster hard drive, the HP ought to be a good performer for many years. If the Sotec’s question marks scare you, the HP offers a compelling alternative.

Future outlook: When a system reaches a magical price point (notables were the $899 all-in-one Compaq Presarios in 1996, the $399 eMachine in 1998, the $199 Microtel Linux PCs from Wal-Mart this year, and this year’s sub-$900 laptops) it’s extremely tempting to run out and buy one. Especially the Sotec, which offers not only a great price, but almost every possible extra.

But remember what happened in the past. Compaq invaded Packard Bell’s territory in 1996 and released an underpowered but reliable and capable PC for $899, complete. Almost immediately, everybody was selling PCs for under $1,000. Then along came eMachines, deciding that even $499 wasn’t cheap enough and offering a unit, again underpowered, for $399. Few matched eMachines’ price point, but most companies were soon offering something for $499.

Laptops aren’t going to bottom out at $849. There’s no point in putting a smaller screen or hard drive in that Sotec. But if Wal-Mart decides it wants a bottom-feeder laptop, it could have Sotec substitute a VIA C3 chip for the Celeron (the Celeron’s being phased out anyway, and Wal-Mart already sells C3-based machines and their sales have proven you don’t have to have Intel Inside in order for people to buy them), and replace the combo DVD/CD-RW drive for a straight DVD drive or even a straight CD-ROM drive. A Sotec 3120x variant with an 800 MHz C3 and a plain old CD-ROM drive could probably sell for $749 or even $699. If Wal-Mart decides to thumb its nose at Microsoft and offer a Linux-based variant, it could chop another $100 off the price. (The big question there is whether it’s possible to support the Sotec’s modem under Linux.)

How soon will it happen? Hard to say. But think about it. Wal-Mart undercut everybody. Everybody reacted quickly. Dell wants to own the laptop market, because it’s part of the PC market. Wal-Mart wants to own every market. They’ll both strike back. HP and Toshiba won’t throw in the towel right away either, because they’re both big in retail laptops.

Right now the Sotecs are selling like crazy. Wal-Mart and Office Depot can’t keep them in stock. They won’t lower prices any further unless Dell and HPQ and Toshiba react again and seriously cut into sales. That’ll depend on whether they’re satisfied with their current sales figures. With 14 shopping days until Christmas (and realistically, the clock running out on shipping something to arrive before Christmas), I don’t expect pricing or inventory conditions to change much in the next two weeks.

But remember, this is Christmas boom time. People always cut prices after Christmas to spur sales. Chipmakers cut their prices too, meaning these laptops will be cheaper to make a month from now.

So if you’ve been wanting a laptop for a while and the sudden appearance of $849 laptops got you thinking but you’re willing to wait a while longer, this is a good time to wait.

6 thoughts on “Straight talk on cheap laptops

  • December 16, 2002 at 8:19 am
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    Good analysis. I suspect you are correct about this being a good time to just sit tight and wait.

    Now, if only Apple would shutdown the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field&reg and bring their prices in line with the real world. I’d love to mess around with OSX, but main is it hard to stomach those prices… 😉

  • January 14, 2003 at 10:59 am
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    How do the high end P3s compare to the P4s?

  • January 14, 2003 at 12:43 pm
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    Rule of thumb: The P4 came into its own somewhere between 1.8 and 2 GHz. Slower than that, you’re better off with a high-end P3. As old as the P3 is, you’d expect to see fire sales on it–its performance is the reason why you don’t.

  • February 25, 2003 at 1:46 pm
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    Great article. Dell is currently offering the Inspirion 2650C for $699 ($849 with an automatic online rebate of $150). Also, there is another coupon code that takes an additional %15 off the $699 price.

    After looking at the specs of the 2650C, I can’t really say I’m impressed: 14.1, Celeron 1.6, 256 ddram, no DVD, 20 G HD, NIC and modem, etc. For the price it seems pretty good, but I’m sure this thing lacks in performance and, as you say, you’ll probably have to spend an extra $100 for an extended warranty, cuz this bad boy is sure to break.

  • August 15, 2003 at 4:50 pm
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    Thanks for the analysis Dave. I stumbled onto this site while googling for some how-to stuff on linux and am finding a lot of the stuff i’m reading re: both technology and faith quite interesting.

    My question:

    I’m interested in getting a refurbished laptop and figured on just going to Pricewatch.com on the day my wife lets me drop $500 on another toy (hopefully soon). Looking at the site today, I’d get something like a PII 400 IBM TP for below my price range.

    I’d like to ask the various experts here for advice on buying a cheap laptop. I’d use it mainly for websurfing, emailing, ‘lite’ spreadsheet work, word processing. I wouldn’t play video games on it, but I’d like to watch DVDs on it when I have the time. It’d likely stay at home (replacing a desktop), but I expect I could handle another 6-7 lbs. in my carry-on if I wanted to take it on an occasional trip. I’d buy it without an OS and then first install a copy of Windows and Office XP on it. Eventually though, I think I’d try to put all the non-MS software on it I’d need to go without any MS (i.e. Linux, OpenOffice, Mozilla, and Eudora – is that it?).

    What do you think?

    Thanks in advance.

    Joe

  • January 5, 2004 at 6:38 pm
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    Well u were right on microtel. Sure enough there is a laptop now @ $699. No OS and cdrom only. I’m thinking of grabbing one of these. Cheap mobile computing for the masses. I might wait till these drop to $500 to $600, hopefully in mid 2004.

    Paid $999 for a compaq in January 2003, before an $100 to $150 rebate. Came with 1.6 ghz celery, 256 meg, cdrw/dvd. Real nice deal. Also had a coupon so u could get a free usb floppy.

    Lots of decent deals on laptops refurbished. You can get something pretty useable for $500 or so. And the microtel desktops are at $169 sans cdrom and hard drive. I’ve already got a 30 gig 7200 rpm that i could use, and cdrom / cdrw would be $10 to $20 surplus.

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