The laptop mafia

May 8, 2006

Getting a PC organised is relatively simple - select the bits and pieces, read the manuals and build. But when it comes to a laptop, you are really up against some kind of mafia which isn't about to release its iron grip on the market.

There are only two components of a laptop which conform to any standards - the memory and the hard drive. These two apart, every manufacturer designs every component any which way he wants. The result is that companies make a fortune on spares and upgrades - you can buy them from only one source.

My experience trying to source a laptop for my teenage daughter recently taught me one thing - commoditisation must take place urgently in this market. The manufacturers are holding people to ransom, pure and simple.

For one, you can't get any laptop without an operating system. Each and every manufacturer - Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, Toshiba, IBM, HP - only send out machines which have Windows installed. The stock answer from any retail salesman is that the machines come from the factory "that way" and nothing can be done. Dell is the one manufacturer that sells direct to customers but even there I drew a blank - it's Windows or nothing.

Only one smaller manufacturer, Twinhead, agreed to provide a laptop without Windows installed. The retailer who sells the Twinhead brand said it would cost $80 (Australian dollars) less. Linux users, take note. This retailer only had Twinhead laptops built using the AMD 64-bit Turion processor. He had no other models. I would probably have bought one from him had I not come across a better deal an hour or so later.

Apart from Dell, it is well nigh impossible to buy something to your own specs. I saw what looked like a good Acer model at one retailer. However, the retailer himself seemed ignorant of many things - how much the memory could be upgraded to (it had one GB onboard), whether there were bigger hard drives available (he was convinced that 100 GB hard drives are the biggest available for laptops, though Seagate introduced a 120GB laptop drive in April 2005) and generally was quite mulish when it came to considering changes to the options advertised.

He wouldn't even agree to change the operating system from XP Home to XP Pro (something I asked about, just to test him; to me either Home or XP is all the same - junk). I spent 45 minutes getting information out of him. It would have paid off for him had I not come across a better bargain at a different store.

At store after store, I found salesmen who merely recited what was printed on spec sheets beside the laptops on display. One did agree to a few changes in the specs of an LG laptop which had an Intel duo core processor. He did not mention anything about the heat generated by the processor and when I asked what good a dual core processor was when one was using an operating system which was not written for it, he kept quiet.  In his favour it must be said that he knew the specs of the system well and had ready, if sometimes incorrect, answers to every question I asked.

Finally I settled for an IBM Thinkpad which was on a special deal - it had a gig of RAM, the only laptop which had this (all others had 512 or less, though the retailers were willing to upgrade to 1GB provided I paid) and the retailer agreed to upgrade the hard drive from 40 GB to 80 GB for $159 extra. It also had a DVD super multi drive. For $1554 all told, that was a pretty good deal as the laptop also has a 15" TFT display.