July 7, 2008

How to get the best deal on a notebook computer (a.k.a. laptop computer)

Filed under: Networking,T3city — pj @ 1:28 pm

This is a question I get a lot. Notebook computers are extremely popular… everybody is tired of all the wires and space required by a traditional desktop computer. People are printing less and not everybody needs a big tower case that can hold the latest and greatest $500 video card! Kids want a computer they can easily take to college or class. They problem is that the typical budget notebook runs $700 – $800 (both online and in the stores), but everybody wants to pay $400 – $500.

Getting a Deal 

FIrst, let’s look at how to get the great deal everybody wants: Retail stores know you want a $400 laptop, so they use this item as a loss leader. If you watch the newspapers around popular days for big sales (back to school tax holidays, July 4th, Black Friday, etc), you will often find impossible deals advertised. These really are great deals if you are willing and able to jump through the required hoops. Be aware that there are more people looking for the deal then there are systems available at the sweet price. In fact, the stores are counting on this… they sell 4 systems at the loss leader price and 100 systems at the “sale” price that they can make money at. 

If you want the best deal, I highly recommend that you watch the newspaper advertisements. You’ll find prices you can’t even get online.  Also, check out this link: http://www.notebookreview.com/deals/. There are probably other lists of laptop deals – I don’t buy them very often – this is just one I happen to know of.

Since it is easy, it is always worth checking out the deals available online. Two online stores I check a lot are NewEgg and Buy.com. Amazon.com also has good deals from time to time, but I hate their search interface.

Then, there are just the random deals you have to be on the lookout for. Here is an example: I wanted to buy my two older kids notebooks for Christmas to take to school. I did the usual initial searching around. I wasn’t willing to get in line for black Friday sales. One day, I just happened to pull up microcenter.com and do a search. I found an impossible deal – budget Lenovo 15″ for $400. I printed the price and went to the store. The price on the display was like $700, but I asked. They guy said the $400 deal was for real and sold me two at that price. I am sure I could have sold them on ebay for $600! Crazy.

There are ultra budget systems available that normally cost around $400. A typical example is the Asus Eee PC. Though they are interesting and competition is always good, I personally would not want one of these notebooks… the keyboards are bad and the screens are too small. Most people I know want a Windows OS. Windows XP was a solid notebook OS. Everybody knows how to use it. I am starting to wonder if Ubuntu (a popular Linux distribution) is not a better choice than Windows Vista, though.

Choosing a Model

All the the name brands (Dell, Sony, NEC, HP, etc.) are going to have about the same reliability. Sony and Lenovo’s (formerly IBM) ThinkPad  are the premium laptops. If you are going to use the built-in keyboard a lot, consider the feel of the keyboard. I think the Lenovo’s keyboards are the best. I have a 13″, 4 pound Sony. I like the small form factor, but if I were to buy again, I’d look for a similar form factor in Lenovo because I really don’t like the Sony keyboard and I’ve now ended up using mine enough to where it has become annoying. The Lenovos also have a keyboard light… this is very useful and I wish my Sony had one.

I have a customer that bought 2 state of the art 13″ 3 pond Sonys. They are similar to mine but have carbon fiber cases and hybrid hard drives (normal hard drive plus some flash). It turns out that the hybrid hard drives aren’t any faster or better for batteries than normal hard drives… also, these 2 notebooks have already been replaced twice each (one is in the shop for a 3rd time) for failed hard drives. The problem with the hard drives is probably just a coincidence, but, overall, I would not opt for the hybrid hard drive if I had a choice.

Your notebook will come with Vista. Technically, OEMs can’t sell Vista after July 1. Too bad because Vista is a poor match for the slower components (RAM, hard drives) used in notebooks. On some recent Vista notebooks I have setup for a client, I had to uninstall Norton Anti-Virus just to make them usable. With Vista, you’ll want at least 1GB RAM. A 7200 RPM hard drive would be good, too, but these are hard to find.


The new high capacity hard drives are the major weakness of all modern notebooks. Your notebook’s hard drive will fail! Unlike failures with desktop hard drives, the chances of a total hard drive failure (where only a backup recovery service can get the data off for a cost of $500 and a week wait) are very high. Don’t lose your family pictures! You definitely need a backup solution. I recommend something you can set and forget. The home version of http://mozy.com/ is pretty good and the 2GB account is free – OK for My Documents (say for a computer to take back and forth to school), but not big enough for a large Outlook archive or a big collection of pictures. I am still searching for a really good and free or inexpensive set and forget backup solution.


I put AVG on my kid’s notebooks. The free version is very popular and gets OK reviews, but there are a lot of complaints about the resources required by latest version (8.0). Also, I noticed that at least on one of the notebooks, it had not been running automatic updates… Really, this kind of software must be set and forget.

Office Suite

You can save some money with the free Open Office. It really is a good program. If you configure it to save as .doc and .xls by default, most people will barely notice they aren’t using Microsoft Office. The only problem comes when somebody sends an Office 2007 docx or xlsx XML format file (the default “open” file format for Office 2007). Now that the competitors have mastered .doc and .xls, Microsoft had to change things up to keep customers coming back!

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