Lenovo and Best Buy team up for a $149 laptop this year

Cheap laptops are nothing new this time of year–they’ve been practically a holiday tradition since 2002 when Sotec released a decent laptop for $900, which was jaw-droppingly low for the time–but this year, Best Buy is selling a Lenovo Ideapad 100s for $149.99, which, while not jaw-droppingly low given the number of $199 laptops that were available last year, is still the cheapest name-brand laptop I’ve seen. Note: Best Buy has since raised the price to $199, but Ebay has limited stock of the same item for $129.

I’ve seen some reviews, but there is one thing I haven’t seen anyone bring up yet: This is a netbook in every way, except I think we’re supposed to call them cloudbooks now. So keep that in mind. The machine is probably worth $149.99, but it made some compromises to reach that price point.

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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.

The $799 Lindows subnotebook

I let this one slip by this past week, but Lindows has a new coup, to go with the $199 PCs at Wal-Mart: a $799 subnotebook.
What to think about it? It’s an odd mix. It offers high-end features like USB 2.0 and Firewire built in, and a generous 256 MB of RAM. But it has an underpowered VIA C3 processor. Its three-pound weight would be very nice.

But for $799 you’re not getting everything you’ll probably want or need. There’s no CD-ROM or floppy at that price. So if you’re looking for a cheap notebook to load another OS on, you won’t get there for $799. By the time you buy an external CD-ROM, you’re awfully close to the price of the getting-to-be-famous Sotec, which you can sometimes find now for $799 after some rebates. While the Sotec weighs 4.4 pounds, it has everything you’ll need to load another OS on it, and it comes with Windows XP Home, which makes me wonder just how much you’re saving by not having to pay the Microsoft tax.

The laptops Lindows compares it to aren’t really a fair comparison. As a performer, this subnotebook really isn’t in their league. Comparing it to a PDA isn’t exactly fair either. I can’t speak for the PocketPC devices, but the thing I like about the Palm I carry is that it’s an instant-on device. If I power it down with my task list onscreen, the task list comes up when I power it back on, and it comes up immediately. I’m sure with the right distro this laptop could be tweaked to boot in 15-20 seconds, but I don’t want to wait 15-20 seconds to boot up and see my calendar.

I think if it were priced at $499 or even $599, they’d sell tons of them. But the only advantage it offers over the cheap Sotecs is weight.

Skimping on the design would cut some cost, but the obvious places to skimp–a good starting point would be to lose the Firewire and USB 2.0 and offer plain old USB, drop the memory to 128 megs and drop the CPU to 800 MHz–would probably only shave $50 off the price.

To me, the Sotec is much more appealing. There will probably be an initial surge in sales due to pent-up demands for a lighter notebook and/or a notebook with a Linux derivative preinstalled, but I expect them to cool pretty quickly once people realize the Sotec is the better buy.

The answer to the blog feedback problem is not more weblog-ese

The talk that’s all the rage on everyone else’s weblog tonight is reader feedback. Dave Winer’s tired of keeping track of where he’s been and checking back for replies.
He doesn’t like the idea of comments as RSS feeds. It clogs up his aggregators, he says. To which I say there are days when I visit a blog and the most interesting stuff there is the reader comments. That’s the case here at least twice a month. If b2 doesn’t offer a comments RSS feed soon, I just might have to code one myself.

Winer proposed an alternate solution that made my head hurt. Way too complicated. The beauty of the comments system is its simplicity. Readers see something, they type in their name and a comment, hit a button, and it’s done. Who wants another username and password to remember? Who’s going to tell everyone they need one? There’s already way too much weblog-ese running around. Pingbacks, trackbacks, RSS, Googlejuice. Even the word “weblog” itself. Why are we always trying to make things more complicated? I’m convinced that 20% of my readers, in spite of my best efforts, think I have one page–some post I made ages ago about some hot topic, like Sotec laptops or eMachines upgrades. They read the accumulated replies, write their own, and think it’s a user forum. Many thank me for providing a place for them to ask questions or vent. Some of them venture out into my Weblog at large. Many never do.

I’m sure more weblog-ese is going to help these people tremendously.

The b2 gang has a solution to Winer’s problem as well. They’re developing a model, utilizing mature and existing Internet standards, that lets you subscribe to a post. Tick the box when you comment, then if somebody replies, you get the reply via–hold your breath–e-mail. I think most people assume comments systems work that way anyway. Set up an e-mail address that you use for comments and only for comments, and you’ve got your solution.

I’m sure that’s way too simple though. It always is.

Laptop or desktop?

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.

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.

Cheap laptops from Sotec

David Huff e-mailed me this morning about a Sotec 3120X laptop that sells at Office Depot, Wal-Mart, Sam’s, Bestbuy.com, and possibly other places, for around $900 and asked if I knew anything about it.
It would appear not many people do. I found a handful of discussions on Usenet, including a couple of people who claim to have bought one. They described it as quiet, cool-running, and fast. One user said it was faster than his Dell 1.4 GHz P4 at work. (Which I don’t doubt, because the P4 is a horribly inefficient chip–the Tualatin-based Celeron is the better processor, and with its 100 MHz FSB and 256K onboard cache, it’s very nearly a P3. Its specs aren’t far off from the last P3s, the chip Intel didn’t want to sell because it made the P4 look so bad.)

One user complained about the keyboard. The itty-bitty spacebar would drive me nuts. But the only laptop keyboards I’ve ever used and halfway liked were Thinkpads. You definitely pay for the privelige–the keyboards had better be good, considering the price.

Back to the Sotec. One user reported it’s less than an inch and a half thick. It has a mobile Celeron 1.2 GHz, a SiS 630T chipset (with integrated video), a 20 GB HD, 256 MB of SDRAM, 12.1″ LCD screen, LAN and modem built in, a combo DVD/CD-RW drive, and a PCMCIA slot for expansion. It weighs 4.4 pounds, and its lithium ion battery specifies a life expectancy of about 2.5 hours. It runs Windows XP Home.

What it doesn’t have: serial or parallel ports, floppy drive, or PS/2 ports. Definitely legacy-free here. Depending on your intentions, that may or may not matter to you. (I find myself dealing with floppies a lot more often than I’d like, but part of that is because of my job.) No Firewire either, so this isn’t an instant portable video-editing machine. One user reports its memory maxes out at 384 megs. Apparently there’s 128 megs non-replaceable, and another 128-meg stick you can replace with a 256 to get to 384.

So what about Sotec? A Usenet suggests they’re not a newcomer. A post from 1995 asked for parts for a 386sx notebook manufactured by the company. There are suggestions that Sotec has made notebooks for Gateway, Dell, and Winbook in the past.

The price is definitely right, and the feature set is definitely right. It’s not a performance laptop, but most people don’t need performance laptops. It’ll read e-mail and run a word processor and presentation graphics and browse the Web just fine.

Is it a risk? Absolutely. Any laptop is. But having all the stuff integrated minimizes compatibility concerns. One of my biggest gripes about laptops has always been getting them onto networks. Usually it’s easy. When it’s not, you can just about forget it. Or you can count on networking breaking something else.

That leaves reliability. The part that most often fails is the hard drive. That’s luck of the draw. I’ve seen a lot more dead Hitachi laptop drives than IBMs. Some of my readers agree with me. At least one tells me he sees lots of dead IBMs and never sees a dead Hitachi. But I know you can’t count on getting an IBM laptop drive even in an IBM Thinkpad–occasionally those ship with Hitachi drives.

All I can say is, keep a backup of any important data you’ll keep on this or any laptop. And be ready to buy a replacement hard drive in a year or two. At least they’re not terribly expensive.

Can I recommend it? Not without seeing it and spending some time with it. From looking at the picture, I think they tried to cram way too many keys into too small of a space and they’d have been much better off without some of them.

But the price is definitely right. It’s powerful enough to be useful until it dies. With 1.2 GHz of CPU muscle and 256 megs of RAM, it’ll always run Windows XP well, and if some future version of Windows manages to outgrow it, there’ll always be a Linux that’ll run very nicely on it. It’ll give much better battery life than a P4, and it’ll outrun any low-end P4 as well. (P4-based laptops aren’t a good buy right now.)

And it’s small and light, which I know matters a lot to some people. (I’m old enough to have serviced one of the old Compaq luggables. I never had to carry one with me, but since I know and remember those, I have a hard time listening to anyone complain about the size and weight of any modern laptop.) Don’t buy one sight unseen. But don’t write it off sight unseen either.

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