Cheap Laptops

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Vince Massi

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Alas, Izdaari, tablets are replacing laptops.

And now...

The problem with mid-range laptops.

Loosely speaking, a mid-range laptop costs around $800. When people shell out that kind of money, they expect a laptop that does everything they want. They don't realize that at that price, a laptop can't possibly do everything they want, but the manufacturer can fake it.

On another forum, there were several complaints about a laptop that literally could do everything for $800. The problem was that it was packed with cheap parts and quickly developed hardware problems. Do you want a laptop with a touchscreen? The rest of the machine is cheapened up to absorb the cost. In other words, for $800, something has to go, but then people won't buy the machine. So something has to be cheapened up.

The best mid-range laptops have poor battery life. By saving costs there, the laptop can have better, longer-lasting parts elsewhere. But since you lose mobility, why not buy a much more powerful desktop instead?
 

Vince Massi

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Still talking about mid-range laptops:

People don't realize that most mid-range laptops are bought for students. Whether high school or college, they want to play high-end games on their machine. And so you're paying for the ability to play high-end games on a machine that shouldn't be doing that, because the high temperatures will wear it out sooner. The costly graphics card won't do much to improve your web-surfing, but the manufacturer cheapened up other hardware to make up for the cost.
 

Vince Massi

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  In order to do everything that people expect for $800,mid-range laptops have to sacrifice something. Often, they use cheap parts to hold their costs down. On another forum, an upset poster told about his desktop replacement laptop (a laptop with a large screen). It was a $500 laptop with a 17.3" screen and four gigs of RAM. Professional reviewers marveled at how they had fit so much into a low-cost machine. They mentioned that the screen was only mediocre quality, the cheap graphics card couldn't play high-tech games, and it was slow. And then the customer reviews came pouring in. One enraged purchaser after another described different parts that broke down a few months after purchase.

    How did the manufacturer do so much for such a low price? He used cheap parts.




 

Izdaari

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Uh huh. One reason I prefer computers I built myself -- which for some reason seem to last nearly forever -- is that I control the quality of the parts in it. But of course, that only works for desktops.

And as handy at tablets are, it's a PITA to type anything lengthy on one. That can be solved by adding an external keyboard, but then they're less handy than a laptop.
 

Vince Massi

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What you're doing right, Izdaari, is building a computer that is designed specifically for what you want to do with it.

And Now...

How about a touchscreen for your mid-range laptop? A couple of years ago, that would add about $200 to the cost. Today you can buy  low-quality tablets for around $100 that have touchscreens. They can only connect to the internet by wireless (no DSL or cables), they have no keyboard, and most cannot use Windows. They only have one screen, and it is fully integrated with the entire tablet. But a laptop touchscreen is different.

Times might have changed, but a touchscreen laptop has two screens. The touchscreen is on top of the regular screen. And the software for the touchscreen is part of the Windows operating system, NOT THE MANUFACTURER'S SYSTEM. If the touchscreen fails, the warranty will not cover it, because it is a Microsoft problem. Microsoft will tell you to re-install Windows, and if that doesn't work, it is not their problem.

My advice? Because a laptop supports a real keyboard, you do not need a touchscreen. An $800 laptop with a touchscreen is a $600 laptop with unnecessary equipment.
 

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Despite my best efforts, I cannot define the price level of a high-end laptop. However, I can define the phrase itself. A high-end laptop does everything a laptop can do, plus it has high-quality parts. The rugged keyboard actually feels good, the powerful video card will still be above average years from now, the case is made of high-quality material, you can actually drop it (don't do it) without breaking it, its screen gives bright graphics so powerful that your eye can't see much of it, it has more RAM than it will ever use, and it goes on the internet at the highest possible speed. The more you spend, the more rugged the parts will be, but your computing experience will not improve much. However, the appearance will get steadily better if you spend more.

If you insist on buying such a machine (and I advise you not to), let me give you a word of advice: Get one with a separate installation DVD, and with a separate DVD that contains the drivers. Many desktops include these two DVDs, while many laptops have them on the hard drive. In the next few days, I'll explain why you want these on two separate DVDs.
 

Izdaari

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The Rogue Tomato said:
Vince Massi said:
most cannot use Windows.
I consider that a plus.  ;)
Right. My Kindle uses an Amazon-customized version of Android, which is a form of Linux. It suits the device perfectly.

I do need Windows for gaming, but only for gaming, and that's a desktop thing really. Unless of course you're rich enough to buy a new high-end laptop every 2-3 years. I'm not.

My other desktop, the one I use for everything but gaming, is a HP corporate surplus box I got for $100. It runs Linux Mint, and very well too. :)
 

The Rogue Tomato

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Izdaari said:
The Rogue Tomato said:
Vince Massi said:
most cannot use Windows.
I consider that a plus.  ;)
Right. My Kindle uses an Amazon-customized version of Android, which is a form of Linux. It suits the device perfectly.

I do need Windows for gaming, but only for gaming, and that's a desktop thing really. Unless of course you're rich enough to buy a new high-end laptop every 2-3 years. I'm not.

My other desktop, the one I use for everything but gaming, is a HP corporate surplus box I got for $100. It runs Linux Mint, and very well too. :)
Yeah, I used to use Mint all the time, and I loved it.  I switched to Ubuntu for no particular reason.  I can't use it right now because it doesn't recognize my new monitor.  I haven't been able to get it to work with my monitor, and I'm pretty savvy about these things.  Linux has changed a lot, and it's a bigger pain than ever to configure X, IMO.  Yeah, it's supposed to be easy and automatic, but that's only if your monitor responds correctly to queries.  Mine doesn't. 

EDIT:  I just upgraded to Ubuntu 14.10 from DVD.  The installation screen worked with my monitor perfectly.  Then, when it booted up after installation/upgrade, it was back at 800x600 with no option to change it. 

EDIT 2: In a fit of desperation I switched from the Nvidia proprietary driver to the default Xorg driver.  I figure I can do without the fancy desktop effects.  The system locked up.  I did a hard reset.  It didn't switch me to the Xorg driver as I had expected.  It left the system configured for the Nvidia proprietary driver.  But now i have full resolution and graphical effects.  Go figure.  I don't care.  It works now.  KDE is beautiful. 

EDIT 3: It lied.  The Nvidia driver wasn't loaded or used, even though the proprietary driver settings said it was.  So I'm using the Xorg drivers.  I found a forum that explained why upgrading the Nvidia driver breaks the display resolution.  He solved it by installing Ubuntu on a different partition and copying over the missing files.  Too much trouble for me.  I don't see any advantage to using Nvidia drivers if it works this well.  It's not broke, so I'm not going to fix it. 

 

Vince Massi

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i, uhm, ahem, have never had a problem installing Windows.

 

The Rogue Tomato

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Vince Massi said:
i, uhm, ahem, have never had a problem installing Windows.
Nobody has a problem installing Windows.  It comes pre-installed. ;)

Yeah, IMO, Linux is actually getting worse and worse about driver support when it should be getting better.  But at least Linux doesn't suffer from "Windows Rot".  Windows Rot is when you've used it for a couple years and now is takes 5 minutes to boot to a usable desktop.  I used my old installation of Debian Linux for 5 years, upgraded it constantly, and it always worked the same.  I only stopped using it when I built a new computer. 

 

Izdaari

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Windows doesn't come pre-installed if you built it yourself, or if you wiped the hard drive for a fresh start. I've installed Windows on a freshly formatted hard drive dozens of times (at least). Problems are rare, and if there are any, it's usually a hardware issue.

I remember "Windows Rot" from the bad old days, but it may finally be a thing of the past. I've been running the same installation of Windows 7 on my main desktop for 3 years now, with no noticeable degradation in stability or performance.
 

The Rogue Tomato

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Izdaari said:
Windows doesn't come pre-installed if you built it yourself, or if you wiped the hard drive for a fresh start. I've installed Windows on a freshly formatted hard drive dozens of times (at least). Problems are rare, and if there are any, it's usually a hardware issue.

I remember "Windows Rot" from the bad old days, but it may finally be a thing of the past. I've been running the same installation of Windows 7 on my main desktop for 3 years now, with no noticeable degradation in stability or performance.
I've been running the same copy of Windows 7 on my PC for about 3 years, too, and it got to the point where I couldn't stand to load it anymore.  There were several problems degrading the performance.  I finally got it to the point where it boots up to a usable desktop in a tolerable amount of time.  The worst part was finding out what the problems were.  IMO, that's much easier to do in Linux. 

EDIT:  One of the problems is that two USB ports on the motherboard went bad.  That shouldn't cause Windows to boot up (much) more slowly, but it does.  I can't find a way to make Windows ignore the problem, but I removed other things (like Windows search) to compensate. 

The bad USB ports do not cause Linux to boot up more slowly.  I just get a bunch of reported errors when it boots up, but that's all. 

I'd replace the motherboard, but I'm leaning toward just getting a refurbished HP for cheap, like the one I got my son.  His has a 3.x GHZ 6-core AMD processor, 8 GB of RAM and a 1TB disk.  That was $500.  In addition, I replaced the power supply so that he could use a faster graphics card (which I already owned).  So the total was maybe $550 or so. 

 

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I had told people about folks who had bought a $5,000 XP laptop that is now less powerful than a cheap laptop. And then one owner wrote in on a forum. His $5,000, single-core, 32 bit XP machine only had two gigs of RAM, with a maximum of four. The screen was broken and the hard drive dead. He had sold it to someone and years later, after breaking it, they gave it back. But this monster of a bygone day could easily connect to a TV set. He installed a new hard drive with a copy of XP from another computer, connected it to a TV, and was enjoying internet videos.

Suddenly, a message from Microsoft appeared, telling him that his copy of XP was illegal, and they shut it down. He had no way to get the original key, and we couldn't help him. The best we could advise was for him to buy a legal copy of XP somewhere.

If your copy of Windows is included on the hard drive, when your hard drive "goes," so does Windows. You can sometimes copy it to a flash drive (it will refuse to install on any other computer), but it often will not recognize your computer with a new hard drive. A high-end laptop can last you for years, so you're better off having Windows and the drivers on separate DVDs that will install onto any machine.
 

The Rogue Tomato

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Vince Massi said:
I had told people about folks who had bought a $5,000 XP laptop that is now less powerful than a cheap laptop. And then one owner wrote in on a forum. His $5,000, single-core, 32 bit XP machine only had two gigs of RAM, with a maximum of four. The screen was broken and the hard drive dead. He had sold it to someone and years later, after breaking it, they gave it back. But this monster of a bygone day could easily connect to a TV set. He installed a new hard drive with a copy of XP from another computer, connected it to a TV, and was enjoying internet videos.

Suddenly, a message from Microsoft appeared, telling him that his copy of XP was illegal, and they shut it down. He had no way to get the original key, and we couldn't help him. The best we could advise was for him to buy a legal copy of XP somewhere.

If your copy of Windows is included on the hard drive, when your hard drive "goes," so does Windows. You can sometimes copy it to a flash drive (it will refuse to install on any other computer), but it often will not recognize your computer with a new hard drive. A high-end laptop can last you for years, so you're better off having Windows and the drivers on separate DVDs that will install onto any machine.
I bet he could easily install Linux on an old laptop like that.  It would run much faster than XP in 2 Gigs of RAM, too. 
 

Vince Massi

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And now, having bought an expensive, $2,000, high-end laptop, here is the biography of your machine. I am projecting today's prices, without adjusting for inflation, into the future. A high-level laptop costs about $2,000. The top of the line models are about $3,000. Beyond that, the only improvements are custom designing.

18 months: The power of computers has doubled, and you are about as powerful as a mid-level machine that costs about 40% as much as you did.

2 years: It might be possible to install the new Windows Operating System. You have enough excess RAM to handle it, but you will have a problem with the drivers. They are very specific, and they might not work with a new OS.

3 years: The power of computers has quadrupled. You are in the range of bottom-level laptops that cost 1/10 what you paid. But your superior video card and abundance of RAM are keeping you in the ring.

4 years: You probably cannot install the newest version of Windows. But there are still enough older programs around for you to do anything except play the latest high-tech games. And for only $200, you can be replaced by a much-better laptop.

4 1/2 years: Computers are eight times more powerful than they were. But for slower internet usage and running legacy software, you're still a good rig. The newest RAM chips cannot be installed in your motherboard, but you have enough of the obsolete chips to get by.

5 years and beyond: With good care, you should last at least two more years. I have seen three operating laptops that are ten years old and are useful for charity work. Hopefully, they will donate you to an orphanage or some other charity.
 

The Rogue Tomato

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Vince Massi said:
And now, having bought an expensive, $2,000, high-end laptop, here is the biography of your machine. I am projecting today's prices, without adjusting for inflation, into the future. A high-level laptop costs about $2,000. The top of the line models are about $3,000. Beyond that, the only improvements are custom designing.

18 months: The power of computers has doubled, and you are about as powerful as a mid-level machine that costs about 40% as much as you did.

2 years: It might be possible to install the new Windows Operating System. You have enough excess RAM to handle it, but you will have a problem with the drivers. They are very specific, and they might not work with a new OS.

3 years: The power of computers has quadrupled. You are in the range of bottom-level laptops that cost 1/10 what you paid. But your superior video card and abundance of RAM are keeping you in the ring.

4 years: You probably cannot install the newest version of Windows. But there are still enough older programs around for you to do anything except play the latest high-tech games. And for only $200, you can be replaced by a much-better laptop.

4 1/2 years: Computers are eight times more powerful than they were. But for slower internet usage and running legacy software, you're still a good rig. The newest RAM chips cannot be installed in your motherboard, but you have enough of the obsolete chips to get by.

5 years and beyond: With good care, you should last at least two more years. I have seen three operating laptops that are ten years old and are useful for charity work. Hopefully, they will donate you to an orphanage or some other charity.
Strictly speaking, computing power doesn't really double every year or so anymore.  Right now the advancements are more along the lines of increasing the number of cores and decreasing the energy needed to power the CPUs.  Most computers are still topping out at quad-core, even though there are processors with more cores available.  Affordable quad-core CPUs have been around for about 10 years now, and the speed hasn't increased much.  The biggest advancements have been in power consumption (lower) and price (lower). 

Except for that detail, you're pretty much right on target.  While CPUs aren't advancing as quickly as they used to, other parts of the typical computer have been moving ahead, such as memory addressing speed, graphics speed, disk speed (especially with the advent of SSDs), WiFi speed, peripheral (e.g. USB) speed, etc. 

 

Vince Massi

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    So what'll a few hundred bucks get me nowadays?

Stick with name brands. Generally, the best cheap laptops are Acer. If you find one you like, write down the complete model number, go home, and look it up on the internet. Find out EXACTLY what the operating system is. Is it Starter Edition, Single Language Edition, etc.

Forget the warranty, since the manufacturer won't pay much attention to it. Find out how long the store will allow you to return it. When you get it home, if it doesn't work right, TAKE IT BACK! Don't try to fix it, TAKE IT BACK!

Be very careful about buying a Linux laptop. There is one version of Linux written especially for laptops. But if the machine is designed for Windows but has the Linux operating system installed, walk away.
 

Izdaari

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Probably what I'll do when I get around to it is get a corporate-surplus refurb for $250 or less, any major brand. I don't care what version of Windows, 'cause I'll trash it anyway and install Linux Mint. Of course I'll check the hardware compatibility lists first, to make sure I can get all the right Linux drivers.

Right now this HP looks pretty good: http://www.laptopoutlet.com/hp-6510b-notebook-pc-laptops.html
 

The Rogue Tomato

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Izdaari said:
Probably what I'll do when I get around to it is get a corporate-surplus refurb for $250 or less, any major brand. I don't care what version of Windows, 'cause I'll trash it anyway and install Linux Mint. Of course I'll check the hardware compatibility lists first, to make sure I can get all the right Linux drivers.

Right now this HP looks pretty good: http://www.laptopoutlet.com/hp-6510b-notebook-pc-laptops.html
Wow.  That laptop even has PCMCIA support (People Can't Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms). 
 
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