By Brendan I. Koerner
I've lived most of my life according to two axioms, and two axioms only. The first is a chestnut o' wisdom handed down by my father: "No swimming for 30 minutes after eating." The second was bestowed upon me by an ex-boss: "If you buy a laptop that's one generation behind the curve, you get 80 percent of the computing power for 50 percent of the price."
How jarring, then, to have these core precepts challenged in recent months. The initial blow came when I discovered that the swimming rule is total bunk. ("Thanks", pops.) Now I'm having doubts about the laptops rule—not because it's wrong, per se, but because it doesn't go far enough. Fifty percent off? If the initial price was over two grand, how does that help an uber-cheapskate such as myself?
So in this week's column, I'm appealing to y'all to help me coin a new Axiom of Cheap Laptops. The nub of the quandary basically comes down to this: is the best move to wait a whopping 18-to-24 months until the ThinkPad or Vaio you crave is on the closeout shelf? Or was my ex-boss entirely on the wrong track, and you should you simply shell out for a spankin' new cheapie from the likes of Avaratec or Asus?
First, of course, some ground rules. I'm assuming that no one who's hunting for a sub-$700 laptop is planning on any heavy-duty computing tasks—no Supreme Commander, no stereolithography. Let's assume that the computing goals here are pretty run-of-the-mill: word processing, Web surfing, and basic media chores like editing photos and organizing music.
Also, no refurbs. I'm not saying refurbs can't do you right, but the whole topic seems to merit its own column down the line. Suffice to say that I've been burned on refurbs before—a pox upon your children, Overstock.com!—so I'm gonna have some choice words to offer.
With refurbs ruled out, I discovered, you're not likely to come across anything older than two years; thanks to a combo of Moore's Law and corporate marketing policies, laptops start to gently go into that good night after twelve months or so. Despite copious scouting online and in the local alt-weeklies, I didn't come across any legitimately new laptops that hit the street before the spring of 2005.
The pickings were slim, to say the least. Given my personal aversion to most Gateway and Dell products, I focused mainly on Lenovo ThinkPads, especially the Z60 series that debuted in the late summer of 2005. The Z60m, priced at $615, seemed a good deal given the raw specs. But looking back at the initial street price, I can see that the Z60m's only been discounted around $230 after nearly 18 months. The wait definitely wouldn't have been worth it.