Rage Against the Machine: What You Should Know When Buying Cheap Laptops  


So you’re in the market for a new laptop. That’s not unusual. Laptops have become part of our lives now. And everybody wants a cheap laptop. Unfortunately, the i-keeyada? Argument isn’t valid – it’s not enough to look at how much RAM you’re getting: you need to understand the compromises that you’re getting into – and what you’re really getting for your money.  So, unless you’re buying a Chromebook, read on.


Your friend is irrelevant

The first thing you need to realize is that brands have changed. There are people who’ll tell you that they’ve been running a <insert brand here> laptop for six years and it’s doing fine.  But times have changed, profits have shifted, and what once was no longer is. That friend who has a six-year-old Toshiba is six years out of date. Laptops have gotten slimmer, sexier and more powerful; it doesn’t mean they’re as reliable.

So where do we start? 80,000 rupees.

80,000 rupees will buy a Dell Inspiron N3542.

Powered by a 4th Generation Intel Core 15 4210U, it has 4GB of DDR3 RAM (running at 1600MHz) and comes with a 5400RPM, 500GB hard drive. Display wise, it has a 15.6” LCD screen Nvidia GT820M graphics.The N3542 is a device typical of its class and price range: enough stats to catch the eye coupled with a powerful brand. There are several other models in this price range, such as the HP Pavilion 15-P043T, 15-P021T and 15-P044T, all available at shops in Unity Plaza (IT Galaxy, Asian Computers, TechZone), and they all have very similar specificiations.

Now let’s see what you’re getting. i5? i3? Notice the “U” at the end. All of these have Intel’s “U” lineup of processors. Specifically aimed at ultrabooks, the U series consumes very little power, with the tradeoff being that it offers significantly lower performance as well.

Most people miss this part: they skim the specifications of the laptop and go straight for the part where it say “Core i3”, “Core i5” or “Core i7”, not giving a second thought to the rest of it. There are high-end –u series processors weaker than the average desktop i3 processor.

And a 500 GB drive is nice, but a 5400 RPM drive is slow, no matter how much RAM you have. And that Nvidia chip isn’t very good, either: it’s very low-end.

Translation: you’re getting something slower than you think, even for 80K. But at this price point, you get what you pay for: the numbers – if you pay attention to them – show you what you’re getting, and you generally end up with a solidly built device that can take a hit.

As we move along down to the Rs. 60,000-70,000 range, we see more brands such as Lenovo with their G50 (i3/500GB HDD/4 GB RAM), a whole plethora of HP laptops, even a few almost-useless convertibles. On paper, they’ll look like great deals. i5? 4GB of RAM? A 750 GB hard drive?

But what you won’t see on that sheet is where manufacturers had to cut corners in order to make the device affordable while keeping their margins.

The screen’s usually the first to go. You’d be surprised at how bad a cheap screen can be. Sound, definitely: you’ll figure that out after you buy this and try to watch a movie on it. Overheating? Yes. Poor battery life? Yes. Terrible touchpad? Creaky laptop hinges? Yes. All of these are what you find yourself saddled with a few months down the line. You know that friend who complains that their laptop is always overheating or slow? Yeah.

Further down the price range (from Rs. 60,000-50,000), we see a lot of laptops. Rather, we see a lot of the same kind of laptop. This range is probably the bottom of the food chain for laptops, and specsheets de-evolve into a sort of homogenous goo. Acer’s present here in droves; there’s Lenovo; HP; Gigabyte; even ASUS tabs at this segment, and this is a very popular segment – especially for hopeful students buying their first laptop. And despite the cheap price tag, they all look ridiculously good – on paper.

Compromises? Build quality is decent in the showroom, but then slowly deteriorates. Creaking hinges, faulty buttons, non-responsive touchpads, overheating, faulty batteries and a host of other problems plague these devices. Pretty soon you’ve got something that needs a mouse, runs on battery for a whopping 2 hours before dying, and ends tragically. By the time your warranty’s up, you’ll be ready to fork out another 60K for yet another cheap laptop.

This happens regardless of brand.

The reason? The majority of laptops are actually manufactured by a handful of Taiwanese ODMs. The largest notebook manufacturer in the world isn’t HP or Dell; it’s Compal, followed by Quanta, and then the likes of Wistron and Foxconn. These companies design and manufacturer devices, and the “manufacturers” that we know simply rebrand and sell these devices to the consumers.

And at the price point we’re talking about, brand ceases to really matter. There’s only so many cost-effective parts to throw in and so many designs to pick from; there’s only so many ways you can build an i3 laptop and still sell it for 50,000 rupees.

Even with all the QC in place, you still get cheap keyboards; cheap touchpads; cheap screens; designs that aren’t expensive because they aren’t effective; components that are designed with compromise.

This is how the game is played. Don’t fool yourself thinking you’re getting a good deal for dirt cheap – if the specs are good, you’re going to be lacking something really important. Maybe your keyboard will fall out.  Maybe they cut down on the cooling, and now you need to buy one of those ugly coolers to keep your laptop from melting.

Maybe you shoulda saved and gone for something better.



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