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Tips on Buying a Laptop…

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[Alternative Title: How I saved a bundle on my latest laptop purchase...]

If you happened to have read my article yesterday, you'd have caught this little tidbit:

I think that I got a really good deal on a new-to-me (refurbished) laptop this week. My previous computer, a Dell Inspiron 1525 with a low-end Core 2 Duo chip, is actually still quite fast for my purposes, but one drop about 14 months ago hit a hinge pretty hard. Repeated opening and closing over the year lead to it almost falling off this past Friday.

The previous computer that I mentioned above is about two years old. At the time it cost me around $600 from Dell's Outlet store. I remember being ecstatic about having a laptop with a computer with a mid-range processor (a Core 2 Duo T5750) and the boost from 1GB of memory to 4GBs. I was also excited to make the jump from Windows XP to Vista. (That was obviously before I heard about all the issues with Vista.) I think that my excitement about the new computer was justified as just about 6 weeks ago, my work was shelling out $1200 to outfit software engineers with Mac PowerBooks with slower processors and a smaller screen.

So what about the new computer that I bought? I went to the same well as before... Dell Outlet. Why do I keep going there? Dell's Outlet store seems to liquidate top performing computers for cheap prices. When I looked at Comp-USA's website (they have a lot of refurbished computers now) or HP, I couldn't find similar deals. For several months, I had been eyeing the Dell Studio XPS 16... specifically the 1645 model. The Dell Studio XPS 1645 that I purchased is outstanding for a few reasons:

  • Processor - They had an Intel Quad-Core i7-720QM available. That's tech speak for amazingly fast for a laptop. The PassMark benchmark (a measure of speed) of that processor is 3235. In comparison the same benchmark test for my current computer is 1113. When more is better I'm a fan of 3235 vs. 1113.
  • Screen - I splurged a little (very little considering my $600 purchase) on my old Inspiron 1525 to get a 1440x900 resolution on a 15 inch screen. My new computer will have a 1920x1080 resolution on a 15.6 inch screen. If you've looked into getting the same full 1080P (1920x1080) on a very small television, you know how expensive and how impressive such a screen can be. The technology to squeeze more pixels into a smaller space is fairly cutting edge.
  • Memory - My new computer is coming with 6GB of memory. That's not a huge upgrade from my 4GB - if I stuck with a 32-bit operating system. However, in jumping to a 64-bit version of Windows 7, I'm hearing that 6GM of memory will be a solid improvement.
  • Hard Drive - I didn't opt for a huge hard drive... instead I opted for a fast hard drive. It spins at 7200RPM, which is a very rough measure of hard-drive speed (apologies to gamers who may look into seek times, write times, and more). The 320GB size is large enough to hold all the basic business applications I need... and a lot more.
  • Battery - In getting my new computer I'm trading in my 6 cell battery for a 9-cell battery. In layman's terms that means that I'm getting about 33% more battery life at the expense of a little weight.
  • Operating System - I'll be moving from Windows Vista, which I've had a couple of problems with to Windows 7. Everything that I've read about Windows 7 is that it is great.

The final cost of the computers... $998. I told a friend who is very on top of prices of computers and he thought it was a pretty good deal. Then he realized that I was talking about a laptop and not a desktop (desktops are much cheaper), where he upgraded it to a Keanu-esque "Whoa..."

So how did I get this deal? Let me break down all my tips:

  • Go Refurbished - You usually get a decent warranty and if anything goes wrong with a computer (excusing stupid drops like my own), it happens in that first few days. This is a good way to save 30-50% off a new computer.
  • Go Cheap - I normally wouldn't recommend a person buy a computer this high end. Many people should be happy with what $400-$500 can buy. I consider myself as an exception because I use a computer a lot, and I occasionally need it to develop software on.
  • Get Coupons - Before I made my purchase, I searched the web for "Dell coupons", and found that there was a 15% off coupon (and free shipping) available. So a computer that was going to be $1050 or so, dropped to around $900 before California tax and environmental fees jumped it back up to $998. That 30 seconds saved me $150, which is a tremendous return on just about anyone's time.
  • Track Prices - I have been looking at this computer for months. It had gotten close to $1000 in the past, but I didn't pull the trigger. Then one day it jumped up to around $1400-$1500 and I figured I missed my opportunity. So when it fell back to what I considered a very good price (top-end laptop under $1000), I didn't hesitate to buy it. If you are looking for a good way to keep track of prices over time, I highly suggest Evernote. It's amazingly simple to just select some text and save it as a note for later.

What tips to you use to get the best prices on computers?

Posted on July 8, 2010.

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15 Responses to “Tips on Buying a Laptop…”

  1. Rob says:

    Hello!

    The last 3 computers (2 laptops and 1 desktop) I’ve purchased have been Dell refurbished. While I have no idea what the experience may be for HP, Asus, etc refurbs, my experience with the Dells have been outstanding. Your review is spot on – simply keep an eye on the refurb site and look for coupons. You’ll definitely be able to get the machine you want at a great price simply by holding off on the “impulse” buy.

  2. I’d recommend you buy almost the absolute cheapest computer you can. $1000 is way too much, I would not buy a laptop for more than about $450. It will obviously not be as good as yours, but when I buy another in a year or two, again at $450, it will probably be better by then.

    Screen and battery: I agree with you, get a good screen and big battery.

    6 GB RAM — absolutely huge, not sure what you will be doing to fill that up unless you are doing video editing, databases, or hardcore gaming.

    HD — I need a large HD because I take tons of pictures and videos. I would trade the RAM for more HD. 500G minimum. Faster is better, but used up battery faster.

    Processor — doesn’t much matter. They don’t sell slow processors anymore. 99% of the processor’s power will be idle. Usually cheap laptops have bad graphics cards and you’ll get a lot more speed increase from a better graphics card than a better processor or more RAM.

    Other main things I consider:

    Networking — need gigabit LAN and wireless N to transfer data between my other computers.

    Bluetooth — because I have bluetooth devices.

    Webcam in the screen.

  3. Lazy Man says:

    I don’t think there was a 1920×1080 screen in the 15″ format for $450. Even if you go for a 17″ (where the screens get cheaper due to the dot-pinch), things don’t get much cheaper and you lose a lot of portability.

    The bump from 4GB to 6GB was $50. For the amount of Firefox tabs that I keep open (literally 40-50 at a time).

    I have an external HD where I can offload pictures and videos. I rarely need to bring them all with me.

    CPU – That’s a good point. I had some issues earlier this year where Microsoft’s Search Indexer would pin it at 100%. Some of the software engineering tasks that I run can take up half of the CPU.

    I didn’t mention it, but my laptop did come with a good graphics card. As you point out, when you go with a cheaper laptop, you get the cheap graphics card. You usually don’t get the option to get a cheap laptop and customize a good graphics card.

    I didn’t get bluetooth – again these laptops are pre-built and you have to take from existing stock. One with bluetooth would have cost me $150 more and forced me into taking options that I didn’t necessary want or need. I can add USB bluetooth cheaply — I saw options for under $20 on Amazon (and at the size of a quarter, it barely sticks out).

    In two years, I’m not sure your whole computer will be better. You might be able to get a similar i7 QM-720 processor that I have and you might have more memory, but those were the two things that you weren’t concerned about. I don’t believe that screen technology will get above 1920×1080 in two years… at least not at a $450 price point. However, at that point, if you have to pay $450 today and $450 in two years… you will have paid $900 vs. my $998. I’ll have had the advantage of two years with what is close to the best of the best.

  4. “The previous computer that I mentioned above is about two years old. At the time it cost me around $600 from Dell’s Outlet store. I remember being ecstatic about having a laptop with a computer with a mid-range processor (a Core 2 Duo T5750) and the boost from 1GB of memory to 4GBs. I was also excited to make the jump from Windows XP to Vista. (That was obviously before I heard about all the issues with Vista.) I think that my excitement about the new computer was justified as just about 6 weeks ago, my work was shelling out $1200 to outfit software engineers with Mac PowerBooks with slower processors”

    Eh? I’m not going to argue that the initial costs of Macs are lower than PCs, but your company is getting hosed if they’re buying PowerBooks with a benchmark < 1113 and the seller is advertising them as new. No 2010 model fits that bill.

    Apple was selling an $1100 MacBook in May 2007 that was faster than that – as you can see, this machine has a processor that has a passmark score of 1142 (T7200 processor)

    http://www.everymac.com/systems/apple/macbook/stats/macbook-core-2-duo-2.0-white-13-mid-2007-specs.html

  5. Lazy Man says:

    Kosmo does seem to be right here. However, I watched them open them up new just a couple of months ago. Perhaps my company, in it’s ultimate wisdom, bought 100 of them back in 2007 and only used half and let the rest sit.

    I guess I will just stick the fact that the computer that I got for $900 before tax is similar to a $2200 (before tax) MacBook… if you could buy a similar thing.

    I don’t see a 15 or 16″ laptop with a 1920×1080 (Full HD) display. Seems like you have to jump to 17″, which for an i7 would run you $2500 (and you’d be stuck with either 4GB of memory or paying another $400 for 8GBs… no 6GB option). You’d have to add another $50 for a 7200 RPM hard drive.

    It seems like I undercut the price of a comparable MacBook… it seems to be around $2950 (but you get a little more screen, a little more memory, and a little more hard drive space).

  6. and you don’t have to run Windows :)

    Although, to be fair, you could slap Linux on your laptop and have a workable solution.

    I kid, I kid. To each their own.

    I have an HP EliteBook for work, and that thing can take a solid lick and keep on ticking. A few weeks ago, I was feeling under the weather at home and was trying to get some work done. I stumbled while holding the laptop and it smacked into the wall pretty hard. The extent of the damage was minor and cosmetic.

    • Lazy Man says:

      Well to save nearly $2100 to avoid downgrading to MacOS sounds like a win-win to me.

      I am planning to dual-boot it with Ubuntuu… that’s a smart (even if in jest) suggestion on your part :-).

  7. I may buy used or refurb next time around to save. good idea.

  8. Evan says:

    I’m ordering a laptop from HP.com today
    I’m on the fence between a 6 and 9 cell battery. The laptop’s battery life would go from an impressive 6 hours on a charge to nearly 10, but it is 30 bucks more and would make the laptop heavier and less comfortable to put in my lap.

  9. I’m a Mac guy, and even I would frown at the idea of a college student spending 2K for a MacBook Pro. Odds are that a regular MacBook will do the job for less money and you can put the saved money toward tuition. Or beer.

  10. Moneyedup says:

    I spent $1000 five years ago on an Acer laptop for school and it did the job. Unless you are in computer science, 2k on a MacBook Pro doesn’t seem to be justified to me. I agree that the regular MacBook would be just fine, and that the other $1000 could be better spent elsewhere. Laptops go through a lot of wear and tear in school…you need to safeguard them from coffee spills in lecture halls.

  11. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.

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