We often are asked how much does a computer cost. Many times it is in reference to if it makes sense to do a repair or “just buy a new computer”.
The simple answer is that laptops typically range from $300 to $4000 for a new laptop. The reason for the range in price has to do with features and quality. Let’s discuss Windows laptops first. Most manufacturers will have two product lines. The cheaper laptops are in the consumer line and the more expensive are considered “business laptops”. Lenovo (the world’s largest computer manufacter and the company that bought the IBM PC business) uses the name Ideapad for their consumer product line and the name Thinkpad for their business line. It is common to find a Ideapad and a Thinkpad with the same processor, same size of memory, same size of hard drive but priced at $500 and $1500 respectively. The 3X difference in price has to do with the quality of the components used in each product.
Customers of Best Buy frequently walk back the aisle and look for the cheapest laptop that has a specific processor, a certain amount of system memory and a certain size hard drive. Others look for a laptop that looks “pretty”. That is not the best way to purchase a high quality machine that will provide years of service. Usually if you pick the cheapest computers available, you will be very disappointed in the reliability.
Quality of components can be explained as follows:
- The hard drive will be a consumer grade in the lower end product but a more robust drive in the business product. For example, the pivot point for the hard drive arm will be attached at the base for a consumer hard drive but the high quality drive will be attached at both ends of the pivot pin and the bearings used will be much longer wearing.
- The microprocessor and video chip are two important VLSI chips in a laptop. They are two of the key components in determining the performance of the laptop. All semiconductor chips go through an extremely complex manufacturing process that involves repeated deposition of materials, etching always unneeded materials, and “baking” in an oven. Some have compared it to cooking where the product is baked dozens of different times. In total over a 1000 steps are involved in this manufacturing process. If during a single step, the chip is allowed in the oven a little longer than specified or the etching process is a little less than desired, the reliability of the chip can be affected. Those chips that may have been processed slightly “out of spec” for even one of the thousand steps will be put in a lower quality bin. They will be sold for a lower price. These chips may be used in consumer laptops but never in business grade machines.
- Another way to improve the reliability of a VLSI chip is to “burn it in”. Typically chips have a high “infant mortality” where the chip has a higher likelihood of failing in the first 3,000 hours of use. Assuming a laptop is only used 40 hours per week, that “infant period” can last 18 months. After the “infant period”, the likelihood of the chip failing drops to a very low number until it has been used for 100,000 ~ 200,000 hours or longer (which might be 50 years of normal use!). So if the chips could all be used for 3,000 hours before being put into the laptop – the chances of the microprocessor or video chip failing would be very low. There is a way to stress these components by running them at a high temperature and / or high voltage to weed out the “infant failures”. Only business laptops will see chips that have seen “burn in”.
- Mechanically the laptop will have more metal and less plastic. It can withstand more day to day abuse. The frequent flyer wants to throw his laptop into the plane overhead without worrying it will come out in pieces. Consumer laptops typically have delicate hinges. It is not uncommon for us to see $400 consumer laptops have the hinges break after only a few months of normal use. The Lenovo Thinkpads however have beefy hinges that are incredibly strong.
- I just mentioned that raising the temperature of VLSI chips makes them “age” much faster. Better laptops have better “thermal management” which includes more extensive use of heat pipes. The fans are also more robust and will last longer in an environment with some dust and hair. We see consumer laptops which were designed before the video chip design was finalized. They will be expected to dissipate a certain amount of heat. A consumer laptop is often designed to just remove that amount of power and even then, it may assume it is acceptable for the junction temperature of the video chip to run “hot” when it is being fully utilized. Unfortunately, the final specified video chip power sometimes goes up significantly just before final release. That means that in a consumer laptop – the video chip will over heat and burn out very early. Business laptops typically over engineer the thermal management and manage to keep the chips cool even when running full out and with a higher than initially expect power usage.
The other reason for laptops to vary in price is that the more expensive ones will have more features. Here is a partial list of some items that drive up the price of the laptop:
- The thinner a laptop is, the more expensive it will be assuming all other items are the same.
- Higher performance components will be more expensive. Therefore an i7 processor costs more than a i3 processor. A SSD (solid state drive) will cost more than a mechanical hard drive.
- More of something also raises the price. A laptop with 16GB of system memory will cost more than the same laptop with only 4GB. A mechanical hard drive of 1TB will make the laptop slightly more expensive than the same laptop with a 320GB hard drive. A 17 inch LCD screen will drive up the price vs a laptop with a 14 inch screen. A 9 cell extended battery will last 50% longer than a 6 cell battery but is more expensive.
- Extra features will be found in more expensive laptops. Fingerprint readers, multiple ports and keyboard lighting are a few examples. One that I really like is the sealed keyboards and “gutter system” under the Thinkpad keyboard to protect it from liquid spills. The sealed keyboard and gutters aren’t found in the cheaper Ideapad line.
- Finally – some machines are just built for different market needs. There are some laptops that new run between $1500 to $2500. Alienware (owned by Dell) is a brand that makes laptops specifically for gaming. Gamers need high end video processing capability on their machines to play games at a level roughly comparable to desktops. (It should be noted that a gamer can always get a more powerful machine for less money when he purchases a desktop rather than a laptop). There are also engineering laptops that are similar and cost from $2000 to $3500. They are built with high end graphics chips and have a large amount of both graphics and system memory. These are typically used by professionals doing 3D CAD modeling, engineering simulations and video editing / post processing.
Because business machines are built so much better than consumer laptops, it often makes sense to purchase a used business machine rather than a new low end consumer machine. We usually have Thinkpads in stock that have come off a 2 or 3 year corporate lease. These machines will typically last longer than a consumer laptop and be equal or less in price. We often even have engineering level machines. Recently a very advanced home schooled HS senior purchase a Thinkpad W series machine from us to do advanced computer simulations. He was enrolled in an on line class and needed such a high end computer. Our normal customer of our refurbished machines is typically a professional that works in RTP that wants a home machine similar in quality to the machine he uses at work. The most enthusiastic customers are typically small business owners that were going through consumer laptops at an alarming rate and found that machines from us last much longer and not only is less expensive to own but also does not cause the same level of aggravation of failing constantly.
I should add that Apple offers good laptops. They are typically over $1000 in price. We do find that they are similar in quality to business machines from Windows manufacturers. There is a difference in quality / reliability between the MacBook and MacBook Pro.
If you have a question about computers, give Absolute Computers a call. Located in Cary, North Carolina – we are convenient for folks in Angier, Apex, Cary (of course), Chapel Hill, Clayton, Durham, Fuquay Varina, Garner, Knightdale, Holly Springs, Morrisville, Raleigh, Wake Forest and Zebulon. We have folks that drive here with their computers from Fayetteville, Rocky Mount, Sanford and Wilson. Finally we have people ship us their computers from across the US. We often get computers shipped to us from the west coast and most of the states between there and NC.