There's no such thing as a perfect notebook computer deal

September 07, 1992|By Laurie Flynn | Laurie Flynn,Knight-Ridder News Service

Like everyone else, I've been watching the PC price wars for the right time to buy a notebook computer. And like a lot of people, I've been putting it off thinking prices might drop even further next week, or the week after.

As a result, I'd saved a lot of money. But I still didn't have a notebook computer. So last week I set out to find the perfect deal.

Buying a personal computer in a price war turned out to be more of a pain than I thought it would be. Once-obvious differentiators, such as brand names, have lost their significance. Plus, even though the prices are way down, $2,000 is still a lot of money.

I knew from the start I was not going to buy a Mac, not out of preference but to be compatible with my aging desktop system. But through the experience I learned the advantage of the Macintosh: The choice of notebooks is easy. There's only one manufacturer and a few models.

That couldn't be further from the truth in the DOS notebook world. Perhaps the most confusing thing was trying to compare configurations. I wasn't that concerned about weight and battery life, since I don't travel that much and would rather sleep on a plane than work anyway. The most important thing to me was the quality and "feel" of the keyboard, since what I do most is type fast. That left me with the prospect of test-driving everything -- a mail-order deal was out of the question.

I also had to have a modem, and I was surprised to find that modems aren't a standard feature on many systems. Plus, what I really needed was a modem that could send faxes, and an internal one of those still costs a minimum of $200.

I checked out the local computer store ads; I browsed the superstores; I called a few manufacturers directly; I talked to my friends in the industry; I read the computer reviews; and I checked the want ads for a bargain on a used system. I even checked out a liquidation sale.

I considered buying a machine from a third-tier manufacturer that I wasn't sure would be in business through the warranty period. I thought about buying a big-name system but decided that despite the price wars I would still be paying some premium for the name. Where did that leave me?

Finally, I found an off-brand system I liked for only $1,400, but by the time I added everything I needed, such as memory, I was looking at spending almost $1,800. What had happened to my original quote?

I also learned that buying a computer is much like buying a car, except the sales people aren't nearly as ornery and a smooth-talking manager doesn't suddenly appear when it's time to close the deal. What's similar is that the base price may sound great, but the options will kill you. And, like shopping for a car, all your biases and personality quirks seep embarrassingly to the surface. I became so overwhelmed with choices that I started comparing the colors of the machines. Yes, it got that bad.

By Friday, I was faced with packing up my IBM PS/2 386SX -- a 40-pound floor-standing model with a flaky hard disk -- along with my 10-pound fax machine so my husband can do some work while we're on a vacation.

So I ran out to a computer superstore on my lunch hour, parked in the yellow zone and slapped down about $1,200 for a no-name clone with a nice keyboard -- hold the extras for now. And I'll just cross my fingers the manufacturer is still in business when I get back.

Write to Laurie Flynn at 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190. Electronic mail can be sent via MCI Mail at 314-2080. You can call her at (408) 920-5016 or send a fax at (408) 920-5917.

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