Not long ago, notebook computers were expensive accessories for traveling executives. Now, it's not a surprise to find many choices priced under US$1,000.
A recent check of Web stores found major vendors offering notebooks on the cheap (aka "inexpensive," as the companies that sell them would prefer). IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Dell Inc. are all offering portable models for under $750.
The cost of paying less
Forrester Research Inc. analyst Simon Yates isn't surprised. "Notebooks between $800 and $1000 are becoming prevalent," he says, which makes the $750 price not entirely out of line. Yates sees this as "the result of a willingness -- or lack thereof -- (by consumers) to pay more than $1200 for a PC."
If you really hunt for bargains, they can get even better. Last year, Gartner Group analyst Martin Reynolds bought a new notebook for his father that, after rebates, cost less than $500.
"If you're looking for a good deal, cruise the stores and see what's going on with the rebates," Reynolds says.
But, as usual, these deals require tradeoffs.
Don't expect speed from a cheap notebook. You won't get a fast, cutting-edge processor, a lot of memory, or a huge hard drive.
You will get a couple of extra pounds -- cheap notebooks tend to be larger and heavier than more expensive models. And you "may get an older battery technology," warns Gartner's Reynolds. The unit probably won't run as long away from AC power.
Nor can you expect the best possible graphics, although they'll be adequate for most uses, analysts say.
"You can play DVDs on (today's cheap notebooks) without noticing (anything amiss), but if you want to run 3D-rendered games ... the graphics might be kind of stuttery," Yates says.
And don't plan on burning any DVDs. You won't get a DVD+/-R/RW drive.
"All that said," Reynolds adds, "it's not going to be a bad notebook."
Quality makes the bargain
You'll still get a deal if you don't give up too much for a low price tag. Just insist on a few core features from any modern notebook -- or desktop, for that matter.
Don't accept anything without at least 256MB of RAM; 128MB isn't enough to run Windows XP at a decent speed. If you don't get at least a 30GB hard drive, you'll eventually wish that you had.
And a CD-ROM drive doesn't cut it anymore. You need a combo CD-R/RW/DVD-ROM drive so you can back up your data, burn CDs, and watch DVDs in your hotel room.
Finally, you'll want wireless networking. More and more public places, especially coffee houses, offer Wi-Fi Internet access, making it easy to check your e-mail on the road.
But don't let a notebook vendor charge you too much for Wi-Fi support. Sure, built-in wireless is all very cool, but you can buy a wireless PC card for under $30 and easily install it yourself.
Costs of going mobile
Don't let that PC Card fool you. Upgrades are one reason you might not want a notebook. For instance, you can replace the optical drive on your desktop computer with a DVD+/-R/RW drive for about $60. On a notebook, where the drive has to be made for that particular model, doing so is either extremely expensive or completely impossible.
Repairs are another after-purchase problem. Spill coffee on a desktop keyboard, and you can buy another keyboard for $15 and plug it in yourself. Spill coffee on a notebook keyboard, and you've got a long downtime and a major expense on your hands.
On the other hand, if you handle it carefully, a cheap notebook is still a good buy. Of his father's $500 notebook, Reynolds reports, "my dad is extremely pleased with it."
How cheap will notebooks get? Forrester's Yates believes that there's "only so far they can go. They won't become $200 devices. They'll probably bottom out around $500."
Reynolds agrees the price his father paid will soon be common.
"In a couple of years, we could be looking at $499 notebooks. Of course, they'll be better than the $1999 notebooks you buy today."