Low End Theory: Buy and Hold...and Hold, and Hold


By Brendan I. Koerner

Automakers may run all those ads in which cowboy-booted, mustachioed Americans lovingly reel off their vehicle's astronomical mileage counts ("482,000 miles, and still going strong!"). But let's face it, they don't really want you pushing the odometer that high—they'd much prefer that you upgrade to a new car every seven or eight years. And the way they stack the deck against you is by building cars that, after said seven or eight years, become onerously expensive to maintain. Barring a righteous urge to keep pouring money into your decaying engine, the fiscally responsible move is to stop fighting The Man and fork over for some new wheels.

Laptop manufacturers have the same idea—they want you to junk your current model every three years, and upgrade to whatever fantastic new chip they've just bought in bulk from Intel. But there's a big flaw in this strategy when it comes to laptops: thanks to our low-end pals in Guangdong and elsewhere, it's not prohibitively expensive to maintain your Vaio or LifeBook. And there's no greater example of this point than the seriously humble PCMCIA Ethernet adapter, the bane of notebook makers everywhere, and the savior of cheapskates from Qausuittuq to Ushuaia. A paean to what the likes of Xircom and Encore have done for us misers after the jump.

Before I launch into a semi-extended discourse on click-in Ethernet adapters, a little personal anecdote is in order. I got the idea for this column a few days back, after helping a Mom-type download the latest drivers for her wireless card. I was pretty taken aback by how ancient her laptop was—it was a Toshiba Satellite Pro that weighed more than a fat baby, and it had those blocky plastic keys that were a hallmark of laptops 'round the time of the Lewinsky Affair. But she'd managed to kit it out with a Wi-Fi card nonetheless, and with a little ingenuity from yours truly, I got her online.

My helpee was by no means a power user—as far as I could tell, all she wanted to do was word process and check her Hotmail account. But, let's be honest, doesn't that describe something like three-quarters of all potential laptop users? No, not present company, as I know y'all want to be able to program in JARGOL and model simulated air flows along the wings of the X-43A. Mere mortals, however, are content with far, far less.

My point is, an aging laptop is surprisingly sufficient to accommodate most folks, and I remain unconvinced that new budget laptops have improved much on old designs. I'm currently typing this column on a new Vaio running a Centrino Duo chip, and you know what? It gets roughly the same performance as my ol' Pentium III Vaio, the one I outfitted with a 7200 rpm drive for under $100. That $100 upgrade gave my four-year-old laptop the same performance as a brand-new model that costs roughly $1,400.

Ah, but here's where the PCMCIA stuff comes in. Where the laptop makers try to get you is with peripherals and ports breaking down—a few stray coffee grounds get in your Ethernet port, scrape on the connectors, and sooner or later you can't visit the Internets. The Dells, Fujitsus, and Acers of the world assume that the fraying components will eventually tip your frustration meter into the red, and you'll head on down to (ugh) Best Buy to purchase a new notebook.

A pox on that. 'Tis far better to spend a measly $11.50 on the Encore ENP832-TX-PC, and restore your Ethernet capabilities that way. Yes, this can be a bit of a pain, especially if you need to swap other cards into that slot on occasion. But being cheap requires certain sacrifices, and a certain stomach for inconvenience. The bottom line is that you're saving yourself roughly $1,388.50 by going this route—or even more if you opt for a refurbished Xircom card, which can go for as little as $2.

Low End Theory: Buy and Hold...and Hold, and Hold

The question is, how long can you keep up the salvage operation? After a few years of fraying components, a laptop turns into a Borg-like creature, with cables jutting out to the external CD-ROM (the original one having burned out long ago), maybe even an external hard drive from which you have to boot up. Then there's the sad spectacle of a cheap Ethernet card dangling out of your PCMCIA slot, the Category 5 cable forever appearing in danger of popping free from the jack. Admittedly, these mods kind of defeat the purpose of having a laptop in the first place, since they affect portability.

Still, giving the middle finger to Big Business is part of the joy of being a committed low-ender. As with those folks who rebuild the engines on their dying Ford Festivas, there's a principle at stake when you maintain your laptop beyond its suggested lifespan. But it also makes fiscal sense, much to the chagrin of the computer industry. If they really want me to buy a new laptop every few years, they're gonna have to start installing some self-destruct mechanisms in the power supplies. Otherwise, I'm gonna ride these things 'til the bitter end, and spend my precious savings on the good things in life.

NEXT WEEK: Which cellphone company really, truly loves its customers?

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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