Cheap laptops do all their operations by using the Windows. That's both a good thing and a bad thing.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Cheapskate's Buying Guide 2011

Laptop conundrum: Cheap -- or good?

November 27, 2011

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, The Post-Standard

'Tis almost the season to be jolly, so you'd better get your gift list together while the geese are getting fat. To help select the best tech toys, here is the second installment of my Cheapskate's Buying Guide. This week: laptop computers.

New laptop computers can be cheap or they can be good. Can you find one that's both?

Not really. The problem is as simple as software.

Stick with me and set aside what you've heard from your brother-in-law or your daughter's boyfriend. I'm not taking sides here. I'm just being straight with you.

Cheap laptops are all over the place. You can find tiny ones, called netbooks, for $300. You can find full-size laptops for just a little bit more.

Are they good deals?

Listen up. Laptops are just like all other computers. They need software to do anything -- especially the kind of software called an "operating system."

Cheap laptops do all their stuff, all their operations, by using the Windows operating system. That's both a good thing -- if you have a problem, chances are others you know will sympathize, since they're using Windows, too -- and a bad thing -- the others probably are having the same problem you are, so you'll just end up having a pity party.

Let me explain. Windows got a bad rap over the last 15 years for being frail and prone to crashing and for being a magnet for viruses and spyware. Microsoft, the company behind Windows, fixed one thing without fixing the other.

So now, when you buy a Windows laptop -- or a Windows desktop computer, for that matter -- you get a 600-lb. gorilla able to withstand long computing sessions full of games, downloads and number-crunching without a single crash. That's impressive. But you also get a 90-lb. weakling ready to succumb to the first infected breeze that blows its way.

And there are veritable hurricanes of infectious winds blowing at Windows laptops, all night and all day. When Microsoft made Windows beefier, it had a chance to redesign the way Windows works to make it much safer. But it chose not to, mostly because it wanted to keep the newest version of Windows compatible with the older versions.

In other words, Microsoft wanted to make sure anyone with old software from, say, 1995 -- that's 16 years ago -- would be able to run it on the newest version of Windows. All Microsoft actually did was make sure that every virus, worm and trojan written since 1995 would infect Windows PCs made in 2011. Hard as it is to believe, Microsoft made the latest version of Windows compatible with all the old viruses while still making sure it can get infected by all the new ones.

And there are a lot of those infectious Windows viruses. They're multiplying fast, too. There were perhaps 30,000 in 1995, but there are an estimated 3 to 5 million now. There are likely to be 20 million in two years.

That's why I recommend against Windows PCs, especially Windows laptops. Laptops are much more likely to be used for social networking, where viruses are concentrated, than desktop computers are. A Windows laptop, even with the best antivirus software, is simply not safe.

I've been practicing what I preach by using Apple's Mac laptops whenever possible. Prices start at $999 -- twice the price of some of the Windows laptops, for sure -- but they are completely free from the threat of Windows viruses, as well as Windows trojans, worms and spyware. And there are no Mac viruses or spyware. Apple's laptops use the OS X operating system, designed for safety and security.

Apple has another weapon in the sales war. Its customer service has high ratings -- usually, the highest possible ratings -- year after year. The combination of malware-free computing and a satisfying customer experience is hard to resist.

Next: Printers and scanners