Laptop deals, maybe

By Mir
April 30, 2009

The very pretty Carolyn writes:

I’m hoping you’re able to help us find a new laptop for a reasonable price. My laptop seems to be dying. It overheats all the time, the battery died long ago, and the power cord disconnects for some reason every once in a while. The one we have is about 4 years old and I think it’s about time to look into a new one. My husband and I use the laptop mainly for paying bills, internet surfing, using iTunes, and storing digital pictures. We of course don’t want to spend any more money than necessary so if you have any suggestions on how to shop for a laptop or even a specific deal that you think is great, we would really appreciate it. Thank you for such a great website!

Actually, Carolyn sent me this question a while ago and I took my time getting around to it because I have very specific opinions on these things and I know they’re really not for everyone. But then I realized I might as well just say that. So I’m going to.

As most regular readers know, I am a Mac person. I haven’t always been a Mac person, but you know what they say—once you go Mac, you never go back! (Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitress!)

The thing is, particularly during the leaner years of my life, I decided I would settle for a PC because I didn’t feel like I could afford a Mac. And Macs cost more. So I went out and found myself an awesome deal on a PC, and felt very proud of myself, and for about a year, all was well. Then my wonderful new computer started having issues, and the customer service was practically nonexistent, and then I began to remember why I liked Macs so much in the first place.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t great PCs out there, because I’m sure there are. It has simply been my experience that my Macs have been much more reliable, long-lasting, and come with the best customer service I’ve ever received from any kind of company. Truly, having AppleCare and being able to walk into an Apple Store and get help at the Genius Bar is sort of like having a team of magical elves at your disposal. (To wit: I brought in my MacBook, recently, because of a keyboard problem I was then utterly unable to replicate at the store. They replaced my keyboard anyway, just because they’re swell like that.)

The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s much more important to get a top-quality laptop than a top-quality desktop machine. Why? A desktop machine is in very little danger of suffering a mechanical injury, whereas a laptop is pretty likely to fall or be dropped or squished at some point in its lifetime. So there are a few things to consider when buying any computer, but just keep in mind that I would place extra emphasis on the customer-service angle of things when it comes to laptops.

Price. You want to get the best deal, of course. If you want to buy a Mac, you’re not going to get much of a bargain price (though sales do exist, and refurbished models can be a good deal). But there are a billion places to buy PCs, right? Yes, there are. There are generally good specials at Dell, and Amazon and would probably be my non-manufacturer choices for PC deals.

Warranty. My typical stance on things like extended warranties is avoid them, but again, laptops are a special item in this way. You want an extended warranty of some type on a laptop, because of the likelihood of it suffering an injury. As I’ve already said, I think AppleCare is one of the best bargains around, but there are other warranty programs out there. Ask questions—how do they handle repairs? Is there somewhere local you can take your machine? Does it need to be mailed somewhere? If so, who pays for the shipping? Be sure to ask all of these questions.

Customer support. I know off-shoring support is becoming more and more common, and it’s not that I have anything against the nice folks in Bangladesh or wherever who sometimes answer my calls, but when I have a problem with something as dear to me as my computer, I want to talk to someone whose native tongue is English. I’ve spent entire calls with thickly-accented folks saying, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” Totally frustrating. If that makes me snotty and ethnocentric I guess I’ll have to live with that. Find out who handles customer support and how it’s done. Is it available 24/7? Is it manned by people here in the U.S.? I once owned a computer where all customer service inquiries had to be initiated online… which is fine, as long as your computer is working. Can you spot the problem with that…?

Features. It may seem odd that this is the last item on the list, but yes, you will have to think about what you want your machine to “do,” at some point, though I’d argue you should consider all of the other factors first. Because—let’s face it—you can get just about any brand of computer with any feature, at this point, provided you’re willing to pay for it. For Carolyn’s particular situation, she doesn’t need a top-of-the-line super-fast computer, nor one with anything particularly unusual, so this consideration is almost moot for her.

Again: I’m self-employed, and my computer is my career lifeline. Apple doesn’t give me anything at all to declare my love for them, I just pink puffy heart them for being accessible and reliable. This is one area in which I’m willing to pay a little more, because it’s important to me. But for the casual at-home user, maybe there’s another brand that’s perfectly fine. Non-Mac folks, want to chime in with some suggestions?


  1. I have to agree with Mir here – I’ve had two computers (one work-purchased, one self-purchased) for the same amount of time. The work one is a HP PC my own is a Mac – guess which one has been humming along just fine for about 4 years while the other has to be sent in for servicing at least once a year?
    Yep – Macs are more cost up front but the overall cost of owneship is less. Plus they re-sell well (our last Macbook was sold on Craigslist for about 60% the purchase price after 3 years of use).
    Also, check out’s refurbished area – it’s where we buy all our Mac gadgets.

  2. I am with you all the way on the Mac love! People do not understand how error free they are, rarely having any issues. My son had a question yesterday on how to get a project from a portable hard drive he brought home from school to our laptop so he could work on it at home & we went to Apples website which gave us an appt at the local apple store for 20 minutes later & within 20 minutes he was working 1 on 1 with a real person face to face at no charge. awesome customer service! I did save a little buying my laptop from & then went to ebay to buy the extended warranty which save me a few hundred dollars. All I can say is you have to ask yourself “how much is my time worth & do I want to spend it in an aggrevation free zone?” My Dad always told me you get what you pay for & I truly believe it with a laptop.

  3. Sharing the Mac love here. I had a love/hate relationship with my PC, now, with my iMac, it is all about the love. And the customer support is awesome. You call, you get connected right away to someone who knows what they are doing (!), and your problem is always fixed.

    We had to replace our used (3+ years with us, 3+ years with the previous owner) MacBook when DD jammed a bent DVD into the drive and messed up something internally when she tried to get it out. (“It must have gotten bent when I had to jam it in…”), so we got the latest model of MacBook last fall. It is a lovely, lovely machine, and a pleasure to use.

    Another cost savings with Macs is that you don’t have to buy all that extra software to keep them running properly. Almost everything you need is included with it. And most of the bad stuff out there is targeted at PCs, so that is one less worry.

  4. I’m with Mir on the Mac. Agreed. I had a 6 month old Macbook Pro that went wonky, and a week later I had a new model Macbook Pro. Also, you might want to look into laptop insurance. Mine runs about $200 a year, but it covers all the non-warrenty stuff (if I do something to it…). Mine is through It just makes me feel better!

  5. If you want a basic laptop and just want it for internet/bill paying/word processing/file storage, I highly recommend the ASUS Eee line. They’re small (not for you if you want a big monitor) and cheap (under $400 new). They have decent hard drive sizes, but you can always get an external one as well.

    Oh, and they don’t have disk drives, but you can network them with another computer to transfer files you need. They’re not for everyone, but for a second computer that’s small and super-light, they’re great and VERY affordable.

  6. Jess, I’ve heard good things about the ASUSs, but they run on Linux—doesn’t that mean they won’t run iTunes?

  7. If you’re not a Mac person, a great place to check is the Dell outlet online store. I got a great deal on my laptop about 2 years ago. It was literally brand-new, but had been sent to the outlet store because of a 1-inch scratch on the (pretty, lime-green) cover. That scratch saved me $650.

  8. I’m a Mac follower as well!

    I bought my last laptop through and got it refurbished and the extended warranty for a little less than the laptop would cost new….haven’t had any problems with it and have had it for 2 years….

    I agree that their support FAR surpasses the others….

  9. The Simple Dollar had a post a while back on getting a laptop going. Not sure it’ll run everything you want, but it might give you some ideas. It’s here, but there’s still the Linux issue.

    (Hope that link thing worked.)

  10. A netbook (like the ASUS Eee line) is a great way to go, and there are lots of them that run Windows, so you don’t HAVE to do the Linux thing if you’re uncomfortable with it.

    Also, think about what you’re likely to face in the next couple of years as you think about a laptop. My ex was getting a new laptop around the time he discovered that his Guard unit was being deployed to Afghanistan. So, we definitely checked into the extended warranty and what it covered. One of the things it covered? Beyond bullet holes (yes!), he was able to send it in when he got home and they did a complete cleaning inside and out for free. Hopefully you don’t have to think about something like this, but if you’re going to have a teenager anywhere near it? Not much different than a war zone 🙂

  11. There are rumors that Apple may be about to release a “netbook”….something may be coming around or maybe just under $500. Expected release date would be sometime in the summer, perhaps June.

    Mir is correct…you can pay less, but you will NEVER love a computer the way you will love a Mac. Apple IS, without a doubt, the most CONSUMER oriented company you may EVER find. They realize the value of a customer is their willingness to COME BACK. They do everything they can to keep that relationship positive. I’m not saying there are ever problems, I’m just saying you are MUCH more likely to have a “happy ending” with Apple than with ANY other computer manufacturer.

  12. If you have a school-age child, you can claim a bit of a discount on an Apple product. It’s not much on the laptops when you consider that they are $1000 or more – around $100 or so – but hey, discount!

  13. Just made the Mac move (mmmmmm…. macbook pro…..) thanks to the evil, evil workings of Microsoft and its Vista-of-Doooooom. BUT I had a friend just purchase the dinkiest little Lenovo thing ever – super tiny so very light (but non-full sized key-board so consider that), quite fast, built-in web-cam, decent hard drive and with the upgrade to 2gig RAM it was still under $400. She’s only had it a couple of days but absolutely loves it so far. For the record, our IT guy swears by Lenovos. Of course, he’s unbelievably cheap and we’re not always convinced he considers quality over price, but since he has to fix ’em I figure they can’t be all bad, right?

    Oh, other note – no DVD player, but with USB ports you can add just about anything you want or need I would imagine.

  14. I understand the Mac love, but I’ve got a Toshiba laptop I got at Best Buy a little over a year ago, and it’s been really great. It’s a Toshiba Satellite, and was a good value for the price (~$1000, all told). It’s held up well, and I put it through its paces, using it probably 50 hours a week or so.

  15. I have an Asus Eee and our iTunes works fine. I Love it! It’s so wee and tiny! And it works. It comes with crappy Works software package so consider upgrading if you use word, etc. Other than that, it’s been great for us. Also, NO disk drive. But we have a desktop for those purposes.

  16. I use a Dell laptop for work, and a newish MacBook for my “side work” (i.e., not just “personal”).

    I won’t weigh in on the relative merits of Windows versus Mac OS (which is where the real differences are), as others have done that already.

    My overall buying tips:
    1. Set your budget. REALLY. If you don’t, you will overbuy. If you don’t want to spend more than $500, then don’t. And stick with it.

    2. Within a given generation of machines (i.e., ones made in a specific period of time, like 2009), RAM (memory) is FAR more important than CPU. Don’t pay $300 more for the hotter CPU while getting less RAM (because you can’t afford it). A fast CPU is hobbled by insufficient RAM with modern operating systems. Don’t even think of less than 1 GB on a Netbook. I’d get 2 GB on anything else. MINIMUM. (Feel free to get 4 GB.) Upgrading memory is TRIVIAL on every machine I’ve seen.

    2a. It’s usually cheaper to order the machine with its base memory (possibly even changing it to less memory, as one can at Dell’s site) and then upgrade it by buying from or Amazon. You’ll need to know what kind of memory your machine takes (current notebooks take SO-DIMMs, with speed indicated as DDR2 or DDR3), and how many memory sockets it has. You can then search Amazon (“DDR3 SO-DIMM 4GB”) to find the memory you need. If this scares you, use Crucial’s web site ( to specify your machine. You can then search for Crucial’s part number at Amazon, etc.

    2b. Avoid cheap memory. Stick with Crucial and perhaps Kingston. (Sorry all you other guys, but those two honor their warranties and deliver memory that’s within spec.)

    3. Get a bigger hard disk than you think you need. If you’re using iTunes with audio only, get at least 160GB. With video, get the largest thing you can, unless you comfortable with upgrading later. (Upgrading hard disks is one of the more difficult tasks, due to the need to move the OS, applications, and data over.)

    4. If you don’t have one, get an external hard disk (our lovely hostess has links to deals from tiem to time) and USE IT to BACKUP your stuff. Laptops get stolen. Laptops get dropped (shredding the drives). Note that these high-capacity drives mean you can lose even MORE when it dies. Just backup your data. You can always reinstall applications.

    5. Check eBay for extended warranties, especially for AppleCare. You can buy a $200+ AppleCare plan for Apple notebooks for like $130. Same box. Same coverage. Just less margin for the guy selling it. (Yes…there’s a lot of profit in extended warranties, but they’re still helpful.)

  17. One thing with the warranty discussion not mentioned. Make sure that any extented protection you pick up includes ‘accidental damage’. Many of them cover defects, and ‘normal wear and tear’… but dont cover spills, cracked screens, things that stick out and can break off (yes, technical term).
    Also… consider with a laptop. Most are not modular… especially the smaller ones. If one thing breaks, it can be exceptionally difficult to replace (and costly) compared to, say, a desktop. I bet most of us could replace something in a desktop tower if needed, but could most of us safely and effectively go through the laptop keyboard to get to some bad memory or a bad wireless card.. and then put it back together correctly?

  18. Mir,
    g~ answered the iTunes question. You can load Linux or Windows on them. Doing a quick search on Amazon, I see a new ASUS loaded with XP home with a 1.6 GHz processor, 1 GB RAM and 160 GB hard drive for $294. That’s a sweet laptop for that price. I paid more for my digital camera.

    I got mine from Woot for $150 but it’s slower and has less memory. All I do on it is surf the web, e-mail, and balance my checkbook anyway. I bring it EVERYWHERE – it only weighs 2 lbs.

  19. For your purposes and budget, a netbook might be a great solution. The new Samsung NC20 was just released this week and is touted to be the best of the bunch. (Link to Newegg: At $550, it’s pricier than the Asus netbooks (which are also excellent, btw), but it has a 12.1″ screen and nearly full-size keyboard.

    Also, if you load up OpenOffice (free, and available for PC or Mac), you can open and edit MSOffice files and save OO docs as MSOffice files, negating the need for another expensive bit of software. I use it on my PC and none of my clients see any difference when they open my files in MSOffice.

    Although I’ve used Macs since the early ’90s, I recently added an inexpensive Toshiba laptop to my arsenal so I can work in some clients’ PC-only CMSes. Turns out I’m perfectly content with either machine, but the PC laptop was less the half the price of my MacBook and has a LOT more built-in features. (Who knew you could have a built-in memory card reader? And so many more port options. Wow!) Sure, Macs are less fussy and stuff looks better on them, but you definitely pay a hefty premium for that, as well as for design and a smaller market share.

    If you do buy a Mac, I suggest MacMall or MacConnection over the Apple store. You usually get a better deal, pay no sales tax, and they often have free upgrade deals. For memory, check out Apple’s memory, which is no better or different, is so overpriced it hurts!

  20. I got a Dell Mini 9 from the Dell Outlet for $238. It came with XP, bluetooth, and a webcam. I love it and it is so light and portable. The Mini 9 can also be turned into a “Hackintosh” and run Mac OS. I’m considering doing that to mine as I’ve read it’s fairly easy and there are lots of online guides and youtube how-to videos.

  21. Ebay is also a great place to get great deals on NEW machines. We have bought about 10 laptops on ebay in the last 10 years and never had an issue. Make sure it is a factory sealed box and you’ll have no problems with the warranty. We have always gotten a better deal than any “store”.

  22. We went Mac just over a year ago after 18 years as a PC family. Love love love both Macs (24″ iMac and a MacBook Pro). I’ve had a laptop off and on (mostly on) since 1994 and I have always had problems with cracked cases, bad screens, power cord failures (including breaking to the point that a replacement power cord wouldn’t work), dead batteries, etc. I’ve had Compaq, Hewlett Packard, Sony, and Toshiba, and DH’s experience also includes Dell. After more than a year of daily use my MacBook Pro is solid and would look brand new if I actually cleaned it. It was so worth the extra cash (and by the way, teachers get better discounts than students or homeschoolers, and I fit the bill as a teacher since we homeschool as a private school).

    If I wasn’t buying a Mac laptop I wouldn’t spend more than $400 because I know that it would be a quickly disposable item with almost zero resale value.

  23. Wow! Thank you Mir and everyone else who responded here. You sure all gave my husband and me a lot to think about. Will definetely be considering a Mac now, that for sure.

  24. One thing I did not see here is the fact that the Mac will run Windows and Windows software if you choose to keep yourself busy with all that. I’ve been a Mac-ophile for a loong time and just purchased my 3rd home laptop (one for me, one for hubby, etc). The latest came with a free copy of VMWare Fusion which allows it run Windows. I’ve tried it out, and its FAST. So you can have your Windows and enjoy the Mac, too.

    As another testimony of Apple Customer Care, I actually dropped one of my Mac laptops while I had a drive in the USB port (landed on the drive stick). It broke the port off the computer motherboard (I have two USB ports so I wasn’t too concerned, and the computer still worked just fine). Also, one of the arrow keys on the keyboard broke off. The machine is 4 years old and I did not purchase Apple Care. I went to Apple’s website, signed up for an appointment at my local Apple Store Genius bar, and took it in. It was also having power management issues, suddenly turning itself off. Since I did not have Apple Care, they said they would need to send it to their central depot for repair. I left it with them, and for a $295 flat fee, Apple returned it two days later with a new motherboard, new keyboard, new power bus, and a new super drive. Everything but the case and the screen were replaced. Not bad considering my hubby was chomping to buy a whole new computer…

  25. In laptops, you can find the same or better performance (and when I say “performance” I mean hardware speed & capacities) from a PC system than a Mac. Other areas that PC’s win are if you are into gaming, if you want the latest versions of accounting software, and if you really have to interface a lot with other PC systems. My wife worked at a place where her department was Mac and the rest of the campus was PC and I’m here to tell you that even though they used Office for the Mac, it caused lots of headaches.

    That being said, Mir is right about the costumer service (well, Mir is always right, but I especially agree with her here). Apple has far and away the best rated customer service. Apple has also always had the better operating system.

    I want to throw in my 2 cents on one more thing. Apple does use quality components, the same components you will find in many PC laptops. While these parts make a machine that runs well, they do not necessarily make it more durable. If you are looking for something that survives drops and spills, there are laptops designed towards that goal. The Panasonic Toughbook line comes to mind, but they are not cheap. I guess my point is that an Apple laptop is not necessarily more rugged than lower cost PC, but keep in mind Apple’s warranty/customer service edge.

  26. After posting, I realized I had edited out part of my first sentence by mistake. I meant to say you can get the same or better performance FOR LESS COST from a PC than a Mac laptop. Sorry.

  27. Lots of good points here! I fell in love with Mac after using one for work, and my next laptop will probably be a Mac, just because I vastly prefer their OS, especially to Vista.

    That said, my 2001 Dell Inspiron 8100 laptop is still working just fine. It had the hard drive replaced while it was still under warranty but other than that, no issues with it. I have to give Dell props for value for money.

  28. From my anecdotal (observational) experience, Macs are sturdy and more reliable system-wise but when they crash, they crash HARD. As in hard-drive-unrecoverable hard. PCs, I theorize, crash so much that the techs are much better at fixing them. XD As sumo pointed out, PCs are also a better bargain for the same hardware capabilities. For a tech geek, even someone self-taught who is willing to mess around and able to follow detailed directions to the letter (i.e. Internet tutorials, also hardware replacements on a laptop is super-annoying), I think PCs are overall a better value. For Carolyn and the average non-techy consumer, Apple’s customer service is probably worth the premium. I personally prefer the software flexibility and price of a PC (although I’m not enough of a geek to switch to Linux), as much as I covet Apple’s shininess.

Bargain Hunt





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