Q: I am seeing news items about several retailers that are selling laptop computers for under $400. Are these systems any good? — Rachel
A: The value of a computer system is primarily determined by the needs of the user rather than the price.
A great “deal” on the initial purchase is irrelevant if the system doesn’t have the horsepower to perform the desired tasks or if the afterthe-sale service is less than helpful.
The biggest problem the computer industry faces with low-cost products is the inability to provide any meaningful support for machines on which they make little to no money. There are lots of casual computer users who will likely buy these devices and feel good about the initial purchase, but the likelihood of getting “world-class” service after the purchase is pretty slim. So be sure to manage your expectations.
How many times have you heard someone say “if I had known that I was going to have all of these problems, I would have spent more money to get a better system?” This computer segment has the highest likelihood of generating that sentiment.
If you really think about the reason these devices are coming to market, it’s mostly marketing and PR that is driving it, not a need by computer users. Anyone who has been using computers for more than a year would probably be very disappointed in the performance of these low-priced laptops, especially once they loaded all of their programs.
The best way for these manufacturers to get the price down is to strip out as much as possible. So you are buying the bare minimum in performance. They will include impressive sounding numbers and hard drive sizes, but the stuff that really counts is rarely discussed.
For instance, the battery in most low-end laptops (even up to $800) is often a very lightduty battery that will last only 20 to 30 minutes. So be sure to factor in an extra battery if you decide to buy one. Don’t count on the next generation of Windows (Vista, which will launch in January) to run very well on these low-end systems either.
The best fit for these devices is a first-time computer user or a young child who has very basic needs. Older kids want to play games that require much more processing and video power.
The good news about these “price driven” events is that they will often bring down the price of higher-performing products as well, which is where most folks should be looking when making their purchase.
Between performance issues and lower-quality components, if you get more than a year or so out of one of these low-end laptops, consider yourself lucky!