Finding Laptop Deals - Shopping for Laptops and NetBooks

Copyright 2010 by Morris Rosenthal -All Rights Reserved contact info

The Laptop Repair Workbook

Laptop Shopping

Copyright 2010 by Morris Rosenthal

All Rights Reserved

So, how to say what's required in a laptop today for the average user? For starters, you have to decide whether or not battery life is important to you. I don't care much about battery life with notebooks because I don't want to be working anywhere I can't actually plug in. Would you really take your laptop to the beach? If you do, go at night because you'll never see the screen for the glare. Battery life is a function of several things, including: model, backlight and options. I recently bought a Lenovo ThinkPad with LED back lighting that helps it achieve a six hour battery life if you crank the screen brightness down low and use the glow-in-the-dark keyboard sparingly. Cost $679 and was pretty loaded, with a 500 GB hard drive, Core 3 processor, etc. Some models have notoriously bad battery life, certainly the two older Toshiba Satellite's I've owned have both been horrible, but since I don't really care about sitting around outdoor cafes (and indoor cafes have wall sockets), I don't even consider this. There's also the option of buying a longer life or additional battery for many notebook models. Keep in mind that following this advice will turn your lightweight 4 pounder into a heavyweight 8 pounder, but battery life is always a question of compromise. Think hard about whether or not you really need to use your laptop in places where you can't easily plug in, and if that's the case, put battery life at the top of your list when you read reviews. BTW, the batteries in my latest Toshiba have been working as promised for a couple years now, I usually get 3+ hours of life.

The next issue for most people is screen size. In my estimation, smaller screen sizes are actually better for working on, but unfortunately, cheap laptops tend to come with larger screen sizes. That may sound counter intuitive, but the only point of a large screen on a laptop is for watching DVD movies, and I don't watch movies. However, what happens with a large screen is at normal sizes the text stretches a little too much and the letters lose blackness and sharpness. My last notebook had a 15.5" screen and I almost took it back before I got used to the way the screen looked. After a year, I gave it away and bought a lightweight with a 12" screen. Netbooks come with small screens, usually 10" or less, but they aren't true laptops, lacking features like a DVD drive and a full size keyboard for typing. For me, a good screen size is around 12", though some high end mini-laptops have 10" screens. 17" screens are just gross, makes it difficult to carry the thing around, they won't even fit in standard laptop shoulder bags. Amazon has a whole range of new laptops available between $400 and $600, which are more than good enough for the average user.

Connectivity is the most important technical issue for most people. Another bit of advice is don't buy a laptop that requires add in cards. Nobody really uses the add-in cards anymore, whether PC cards or PCMCIA or any other alphabet soup, they all suffer from fragile connectors. Not the card edge within the laptop, that works fine, it's the external connector for the modem, network, antenna, etc, that will be a lifelong headache. That's why I was so set on getting internal 802.11G wireless connectivity in my current notebook when it was new, but the truth is, those USB wireless adapter are pretty bullet-proof, unlike the add-in cards. However, the standard cheap laptop today should be equipped with an internal V.92 modem (RJ-11 jack) and either a 100BaseT or Gigabit wired ethernet port (RJ-45) jack. A firewire port is also pretty common these days for an external hard drive and some audio/visual stuff, but if you're that interested in high-end peripherals, you should probably be looking at a more expensive notebook.

USB 2.0 actually solves just about all peripheral connection issues, though old notebooks will have a mix of USB ports, like 1 USB 2.0 and 1 USB 1.1. I wouldn't buy a netbook without a USB 2.0 port unless you are absolutely sure you'll never be connecting any high speed peripherals, such as drives, color printers, scanners, or large Jump Drives. The truth is that most of these devices will work on a USB 1.1 port, but at about 5% the speed (20 times slower). You really don't need a parallel port on a new laptop since most printers are manufactured with at least a USB option, and if you get a real deal on a laptop, it'll be less likely to sport legacy connectors.

When it comes to RAM, you want a minimum of 2 GB for Windows 7, and many new laptops come with 3 GB or 4G B. As for the standard capacities, my advice is to settle for whatever fits your price tag, no kidding. All laptops come with a DVD recorder unless they are super-lightweight business notebooks or super cheap netbooks. I never used to understand why anybody would want to record DVDs on a laptop, but now that I've gone years without a desktop computer, it makes perfect sense. Internal hard drives are all too large to be fully utilized by the vast majority of users, unless you have a huge iTunes collection to back-up or plan to be dumping digital video to your hard drive all the time. If it's video editing you're after, you really need a higher end machine because a cheap notebook won't be poweful. A small hard drive these days is 250 GB, which is at least eight the storage I've used so far in my entire life.

I've bought several new laptops in the last five years, and when possible, I bought them on sale with store and manufacturer rebates. The laptop I'm writing this article on is a Toshiba Satellite U205 that I paid around $1300 for, for my business. Today, the equivalent laptop (but several years more advanced) costs around $650. I made photocopies of all the paperwork, followed the rebate instructions to the letter, and put the copies with my bills where I'll be constantly reminded until they show up. If the rebate checks don't come in within a couple months, I'll go complain at the store, but what happens more often is you get a letter from the rebate processor claiming that something was missing. Update! Got the money already, just around 4 weeks. This would have been a waste of time in the old days, but in early March, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) got involved, extracting an agreement from CompUSA that they would stand behind rebate offers from third parties on merchandise they advertise at cheap prices due to manufacturers rebates. I'm pretty comfortable with both Best Buy and Toshiba, so I don't expect any problems, but it pays to be ready.

So how can you find which new laptops are available with significant rebates? My first stop in shopping for retail electronics is always www.salescircular.com. They list all of the laptop deals from the big electronics retailers in every state in the country. I think they basically have the same information that appears in the Sunday sales circular if you buy a big city paper, but they have it all in one place where you can see the items side by side. I like buying laptops from chains with local outlets so if I get home and there's something missing from the box, I can go right back and return it. The problem with mail order is that if something shows up broken, you may get stuck arguing with the shipper rather than the vendor. That said, you can always search on Google for "closeout laptops" and you'll find plenty of places that will sell you a cheap laptop by mail order. However, I've spent some time looking at these offers, and even when they are totally legitimate deals from decent vendors that I recognize, the prices just aren't that good. The problem is that the biggest savings tend to be on the most expensive models, so you don't end up with a cheap prices, you end up saving $500 and still paying $1200. I'd also stay away from refurbished laptops unless the price is incredibly compelling, and it usually isn't. Refurbished laptops have limited warranties, normally 90 days, and my gut feeling is that when it comes to notebook computers, once a lemon, always a lemon.

If you buy a laptop in a store, watch out for pushy salesmen. I almost clocked a kid at Best Buy for trying to alpha-dog me into buying a subscription for virus software. I had no interest in playing their game, with the endless, "Sir, I just like to know what virus software you plan to run." The fact that they don't know when to shut up and leave it alone tells me that they are trained to be jerks. Imagine telling a salesperson you just want to pay and leave and to have them continue trying to play sales games. I suspect it's the last time I'll be visiting Best Buy for anything - the formula seems to be, Best Buy, Worst Checkout.