These days the sky is falling on laptop prices.
Starting our fourth decade: Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously online for 31 years

Cheapskate's Guide: Laptops

November 30, 2014

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2014, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2014, The Post-Standard

This is the second installment of the Cheapskate's Guide for 2014.

If you like the idea of a tablet but hate typing on a piece of glass, you're a laptop kind of person. I am, too. I love my tablets -- I seem to collect them -- but I do all my writing and most of my other work on my laptop. There's something comforting in the feel of real keys and a real lid that you can close to put everything to sleep.

Good laptops used to cost a couple thousand bucks, like the big Apple laptop I bought maybe 5 or 6 years ago. (It was $2,700. And I'm not kidding.) These days the sky is falling on laptop prices. Apple's models are cheaper than they used to be, although not by much, but the big story is about PC laptops: Some of them cost less than tablets, and even the cheapest ones are likely to be good enough for typical laptop use.

That would seem like great news, and it is -- with one gigantic "gotcha." Because of the way Microsoft strong-arms the companies that make laptops, nearly all of them are fitted with the affrontery known as Windows 8. (Microsoft is so embarrassed about Windows 8 that it's skipping Windows 9 and going straight to Windows 10 in mid-2015.)

So if you are doing holiday shopping for a good, cheap laptop, you should beg, cajole or sweet-talk the store into selling it with the excellent Windows 7 installed, not Windows 8. (Windows 8.1 is just as bad, by the way.) If you can't, buy the Windows 7 installation package and install it on the laptop before you wrap it and slide it under the tree. (Wait. You're not buying it for yourself, are you? That's cheating.)

(A tip for anyone who thinks I'm just grousing about Windows 8: It really, truly is that bad. There is hope, however, for anyone stuck with Windows 8 or 8.1: You can turn it into a Windows 7+ computer and never have to see those awful kindergarten-challenged tiles that Microsoft wished it had never created. Keep tuned and I'll tell you how in January.)

Shopping locally is always best. But when you're shopping for a computer, "local" doesn't mean much any more, since stores in your area that might seem "local" are likely to be the nearby Walmart or Costco. I've found laptop bargains at both those chains, but you should also check Internet stores. My favorites are New Egg and Amazon, at www.newegg.com and www.amazon.com. I noticed an Acer laptop (with minimal but adequate specs) at New Egg for $199.

When I checked recently, Walmart had many inexpensive PC laptops on its website, www.walmart.com. You should be able to find bargains in the $200 to $300 range. Walmart also sells refurbished laptops and even has some Windows 7 laptops on its website. (That saves you the trouble of getting rid of Windows 8.)

You'll probably find Chromebooks at the bottom of the pile when shopping by price alone. They're not Windows PCs and not Macs. They run a version of the Linux operating system and, like some tablets, don't do much unless they're connected to the Internet.

They're fine for anyone who wants to use a laptop the way tablets are used -- for web browsing, Facebook, email, web videos and so on -- but fall flat for heavy-duty stuff. Don't choose a Chromebook without giving this serious thought.

Finally, what about Mac laptops? They're well designed, and the Mac operating system, OS X, is as good as Windows 7. But I'm appalled at Apple's pitiful laptop repair service, even toward those who buy the extra-cost AppleCare warranty, and Apple's laptops cost two to three times what they should sell for. And I find Apple's prices ridiculously overinflated.

Next: Printers, scanners and external drives.

Write to Al Fasoldt at afasoldt@gmail.com. You can read any of Al's thousands of past columns at www.technofileonline.com.