The great laptop lifecycle

Selecting a laptop to meet your needs can be a difficult task. It’s not made any easier by large IT superstores who often offer misguided advice in order to make a sale.

My position as an IT consultant has given me an birds eye view of laptop lifecycle, a continuous process where a laptop goes from birth to death. The full cycle usually takes about 5 years, which means the average human being will own about 12 laptops in their adult life.

We can draw many parallels between our own lives and that of a laptop. They come in many shapes and sizes, some are small and thin, others are fat and heavy. Some will catch diseases (malware), others will die young (hard drive failure). A few lucky ones will grow to be old and extraordinary slow.

Fortunately the life of a laptop is much less precious than that of a human. Eventually there is a strong enough driver to go and find a new laptop. Experience tells me that the first factor 95% of people consider is price. For example, a large majority of the population want to spend less than £400 (including VAT) on their laptop. Understandably, in tough economic times people want value for money, and even the big manufacturers recognise there is a market for cheap laptops.

However, the market has undergone a substantial squeeze in order to accommodate this price bracket. It might surprise you to learn that the main reason a laptop can be offered so cheap is that many large software firms have effectively subsidised it by paying the manufacturer to have their software pre-installed. This gives the software firm a foothold over their competitors. This is the reason you’ll often receive a free 30 day antivirus subscription. A lot of people will simply renew the product without shopping around. For the software firm, it only takes a small percentage of people to buy their software for the initial investment to pay off. This is just one example. Typically a cheap laptop will come with at least 10 preinstalled unwanted applications – every single one is a revenue generating opportunity for the software firm. To an experienced eye, these unwanted applications can easily removed, but usually people find it hard to identify the wheat from the chuff, and besides they don’t want to spend 3 hours removing software from their brand new computer.

The second most important (and expensive) consideration for a lot of people is Microsoft Office. Your £400 laptop certainly won’t come with bundled with a free copy. In fact you may even cry when you discover this software costs more than a quarter of the total cost of the laptop. There are cheaper Home and Student editions available, but beware these editions only contain the basic applications, such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint. For business you usually want Outlook and that comes at a higher price.

This brings us to another business based consideration. Cheap laptops arrive with a watered down version of Windows. Be warned, this will not work well with a typical business network. The reason being that Microsoft removed several features that allow the computer to be part of a business environment. Most businesses need a laptop with the more expensive Professional version.

People often overlook the core components which go into a laptop – the most significant being the processor. It’s easy to be drawn in by offers of large amounts of storage and memory. Remember that these are upgradable components, where as the processor is not. Within the sub £400 price bracket you can expect to receive a very basic processor. It will likely be produced by AMD who dominate the lower end of the market. The speed (measured in Ghz) is often advertised but this is of limited importance. This makes comparing different models difficult. Generally Intel processors offer as much as twice the performance for around an extra £100. This should be a strong consideration as it could mean the difference between a laptop which runs smoothly over it’s lifetime and one that doesn’t fulfill that dream.

In conclusion, a cheap laptop is often a false economy. The £400 laptop exists to feed a market of people who only vaguely understand what they’re buying. The truth is the cheapest laptop is unlikely to satisfy. Unless you are seriously strapped for cash, go for a more expensive laptop and you will enjoy a better experience over a longer period of time.

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