An Inexpensive Truth About Laptops

 
 
By David Strom  |  Posted 2008-02-21
 
 
 

If you’re like most corporate it managers, you’re tired of continually seeing those $1,200 laptops you buy for your users become obsolete before they even arrive on your loading dock. Even when you invest in $1,600 models, it takes only a month or so for Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Lenovo to “refresh” (a wonderful euphemism for “you just got screwed on that deal”) their laptop lines with machines that have more CPU power, more RAM, more disk space and more graphics capability.

Even my 20-something computer-savvy stepson was bemoaning this problem with laptops recently. He paid about $1,000 last year for an HP laptop that has a beautiful screen but not much of the underlying firepower he needs.

So I took note when a friend sent me a listing for a $300 Asus laptop from online seller Newegg. There are other low-cost laptops around, too, most notably the XO from the One Laptop Per Child non-profit organization, though that device is more like a Speak & Spell toy than a corporate machine.

If you don’t mind a used machine and don’t require Vista support, you can do what some IT managers I know do: Go on eBay and buy last year’s ThinkPads for half the price (or less) of the newer models.

Granted, these older models may not be everything you’ve ever wanted. The Asus certainly isn’t the laptop of your dreams, and you aren’t going to run Adobe Photoshop on it. The computer comes preloaded with Linux, and it sports only a 2 GB solid-state hard drive. But this laptop is tiny and light, and it ushers in a new class of what I like to think of as the “disposable laptop.”

I once asked the guys from Lenovo why they couldn’t make an inexpensive laptop that had a bazillion hours of battery life without the latest and greatest stuff on it, but they claimed no one would buy such a machine. Let’s see if Asus can prove them wrong.

It makes sense to buy something you can expense, throw away (or give to your users to keep for personal use) or replace within a year. Think about how much you currently spend to fix or replace fancier laptops that break down or get lost or damaged.

Now think about a $300 machine. A user spills soda on the keyboard? No biggie! It gets tossed from the overhead luggage bin during a business trip? It’s easily replaced for not much more than the price of a nice dinner.

And what happens when one of these machines is stolen from the airport X-ray belt or a hotel room or (as I’ve experienced with my laptop) the trunk of a parked car? It’s better to have something we just don’t care too much about to begin with.

The one spec that troubles me is the 2 GB hard drive. But for another $100, you can double that space, or buy a USB thumb drive that has plenty of room for additional files.

Anyway, do users really need 100 GB drives to carry around all their personal data? Everything is going online, and just the other side of the browser they can find the untapped riches of the Internet and all the corporate data they need.

Who needs to store all those e-mail messages dating back to 1994 when there are perfectly good Web-mail solutions that take up zero GB of local storage? And let’s face it: Most of the stuff users store on their laptops isn’t work-related—vacation videos, MP3s and so forth.

What makes the Asus even more appealing is that you can have your choice of Linux or Windows: It comes with the XP drivers, if not the actual OS. If you don’t want to pay the extra poll tax to Microsoft, you can save some bucks (I like that). Some of today’s Vista laptops don’t have XP drivers for their newer peripherals.

Sure, I lust after the sleekness of the MacBook Air (but not its lukewarm specs), the tanklike construction of a Lenovo X-series and the compactness of my Dell X-1 (which is getting a bit long in the tooth). But the Asus has my vote when it comes to a no-brainer buy. And it comes in several colors, including pink! Who wouldn’t want one?