Saturday, November 29, 2008

For Individuals, Top Laptop Values May Be At Low-End Prices

About a year ago, when I started my latest stint doing 100% contracting, I realized I would need a laptop for meetings, client presentations, etc. Not for coding -- I've written about my views on that, and I'll never trade away my nuclear aircraft carrier of a dev box for an inflatable dinghy just so I can hang with hipsters at the coffee shop.

Since I wouldn't be using the laptop much, and historically the many company-provided laptops I've used have turned out to be poor performers, malfunction-prone, and costly to deal with, I resolved to get the cheapest new laptop I could find. (Laptops have a strange depreciation curve, with the result that a cheap new laptop is often a much better device than a used one at the same price.)

In addition to the usual holiday sales (you can guess what prompted this article now), the whole Vista-Basic-capable-not-really thing was going on, with the result that many machines were being cleared out for good, considered illegitimate for Vista and not saleable.

I snagged a Gateway floor model at BestBuy for under $300, put another gig of RAM in ($30?), snagged XP drivers, and installed Windows Server 2003 R2, since I had found that Server 2003 was very light on the hardware while offering more than all the benefits of XP.

At this price point, I figured the laptop borders on disposable, and if I could prevent the TCO from getting high come what may.

Well, a year or so on I have some results to report.

It has performed far beyond my expectations (and as a developer my expectations tend be unreasonably high).

The only negative is the comically poor build quality -- this is a machine that one must literally 'Handle With Care' as it's built about as well as those tiny toy cars out of a quarter-vending-machine. I think I could snap it in half if I tried, and a careless twist could rip the drive door off or crack the case right open. The keyboard rattles a bit on some keys.

I have a padded briefcase and the machine was never intended for "heavy duty," so that wasn't a big deal for me. And, in any case, it seems more of a reflection on Gateway than on the price point, since, e.g., Acer offers rock-bottom laptops with much higher build quality.

That issue aside, the machine has performed flawlessly. No problems with any part of it, despite being a display model. And performance adequate to some real programming.

The ergonomics are poor for programming (single monitor, low-ish resolution, etc.) -- but it snappily runs NetBeans/Ruby/Java; Eclipse/Java plus various mobile device emulators (e.g., Android) which I needed for a course I taught this summer; even Visual Studio 2008. I do run MySQL rather than SQLServer, in part to keep the load down.

Let's see ... what else has run well on here? ... the Symbian S60 emulators (along with dev tools) ... Sun's VirtualBox virtualization software, with an OS inside. All the usual productivity stuff (Office 2007, MindManager 8) ... Microsoft's Expression design/UI tool suite ... video encoding software and high-bitrate x264 streams from hi-def rips ... often many of these at the same time. Everything I've asked it to do, it does seamlessly.

My conclusions are that sturdier laptops may well be worth it, especially for corporate IT departments -- I'm thinking about products like the ThinkPad and Tecra lines, where the price doesn't just reflect the specs but also a sturdy enclosure, standard serviceable components, slow-evolution/multi-year-lifecycle per model etc.

But for an individual, unless you have a very specific hard-to-fill need (e.g. you want to do hardcore 3D gaming on your laptop or capture DV, a bad idea with a 4200 RPM HDD), the top end of the value equation for laptops appears to be at or near the bottom of the price range. When one considers that higher-end peripherals (e.g., a BlueRay writer) can easily be plugged in via USB, and a faster hard drive will snap right into the standard slot, the value-price equation seems to get seriously out of whack for those $1200-$2500 machines.

That's not to say these higher end machines are not great ... they just don't represent value at the pricepoint. Just as a Mercedes E-class is a fine car, but the radio commercials that try to make it out to be some kind of value purchase are downright funny, I think the same applies for the high-end VAIOs, MacBook Pros, etc. Those machines are a style and brand statement for people who care about making such a statement.

This possibility is interesting because, in most products, the "optimum value" position is somewhat above the bottom end of the price range ... that is, the least expensive products are missing critical features, making them a poor value, while the high-end ones charge a "luxury premium." If laptops are different, that seems worth noting.

The usability of an ultra-cheap laptop also suggests a response to folks who commented on my earlier article, saying that companies are loath to buy a desktop and a laptop, so if an employee needs any mobility at all, they get a laptop. It appears a good solution might be to provide a high-end desktop and an ultra-cheap laptop. At these prices, the employee's time costs more than the laptop, and my experience suggests little productivity (given a remote scenarios such as a training class or client demo) is sacrificed.

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