Low End Theory: Know When to Say When

This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.
This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.


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."

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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.

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I next looked at the available over-the-hill Toshibas on offer. I was struck by the wide availability of the M55; I distinctly recall seriously considering the purchase of a new M55 back in the summer of '05, before I came to my senses and remembered how my previous Toshiba experience had ended with me taking part in a class-action lawsuit. The savings here are pretty solid, to $673.24 down from an initial street price of close to $1,300 for the 331 configuration. You still get the manufacturer's warranty, too.

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Now let's compare the soon-to-be-dinosaured M55 to something that costs exactly the same, but is fresh from the vendor: Lenovo's C Series notebooks, with prices starting at $599 (after rebate) for the C200. Like the M55, it sports a Celeron M processor, but one that offers slightly less clock speed. No DVD writing on the base model, either—an 8x drive will cost you an extra $50. Other than that, it's pretty much a wash; if push came to shove and performance was my primary concern, I'd definitely opt for the Toshiba.

This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.
This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.
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As for ostensible budget laptop mavens like Asus and Avaratec, lemme say phooey. The cheapest Asus at Newegg, for example, is the A6RP-AP023H, listing at $800 (okay, $798.99). Almost identical specs to the Lenovo C200 outfitted with the DVD writer. Color me not impressed by the company's sensitivity towards my miserly ways.

So I'm gonna declare that my boss was right in one respect—waiting can save you 50 percent. But when it comes to the sub-$700 budget category, waiting out one generation just isn't enough. The Pentium family tree isn't exactly easy to parse, but I think it's fair to say that the Celeron M is roughly three generations behind the mobile curve. Sure, it was designed as a value chip, but in terms of Intel hype, it certainly ranks behind the 4-M and the Centrino, right?

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Thus, I'm proposing an amendment to the axiom: "If you buy a cheap laptop that's three generations behind the curve, you can get 40 percent of the computing power for 50 percent of the price, which was already pretty low to begin with." Not as poetic as my boss's words, I'm afraid, but hopefully skinflint wisdom to live by nonetheless. Please leave proposed additions, deletions, and wholesale rejiggerings in comments.

As for those so-called "budget" laptops that are rolling off the assembly lines today? I'll pass, thanks, unless y'all can point me towards a sub-$700 one that's worth hopping on in lieu of waiting 18 months for a remaindered Toshiba. Convince me.

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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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DISCUSSION

The first thing you have to do is be realistic about what you need the laptop to do. Forget the pipe dream of being the road warrior or the video production studio on the go. For most people, the primary use is going to be word processing, internet surfing and email, and not necessarily in that order. The video editing, high-end gaming, Photoshop et al are much better suited to a desktop machine—where you'll have a much bigger monitor and keyboard, and your choices in video cards and available memory will be much wider.

So, with an honest look at what you need, you don't necessarily have to have even a nearly new laptop. Anything that will run your preferred operating system, browser, word processor and email software without stalling or choking will be fine.

Example: I bought a used Toshiba Portege laptop on eBay a couple years ago. It had been top of the line, in its day, but that day was about six years past. Granted, I used to do tech support for Toshiba and I knew exactly what this computer could and could not do, and I knew that the extra battery the previous owner was including in the deal was a big plus. Sure, the processing power and memory were pretty small compared to current models—but it would do word processing, internet surfing and email, which is what I wanted. The laptop is still going strong, and its small size makes it a great machine for traveling. I paid $200 for it (including the shipping) and got my money's worth.

When my daughter bought a new laptop last year, she gave me the one she'd been using, an HP model about two years old. This one's obviously a lot more powerful than my trusty Portege, but it's so heavy it's not practical to carry around much (one of the main reasons my daughter got rid of it). I cut down the installed software to my own bare minimum, bought some more memory for it, and it zips right along. I doubt I'll have to replace it for many years to come.

The bottom line is that it's all in being honest about what you really need.