Last updateMon, 16 Feb 2015 1pm

Buying computers: Can you pay little and get a lot?

A quote often attributed to John Ruskin says, “There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply.  The person who buys on price alone is this man’s lawful prey.”  It astounds me to realize this far-sighted 19th century English author, poet, art and social critic knew so much about the 21st century computer industry.

For those readers who might not have bought a new computer in recent years, be forewarned the computer manufacturers have made some big changes in the way they do business and in the products they sell.  A decade ago most laptop computers carried a price tag in the thousands of dollars while today some laptops sell for as little as $300.  Too many buyers mistakenly assume the quality of today’s bargain computer is equal to the one that sells for ten times as much, and that the cheaper computer will last as long as their old one.

What has taken place over the last decade is that computer manufacturers have responded to incessant demands from consumers for lower and lower and lower prices. Cutthroat competition between vendors has driven prices down to levels some once thought impossible.  The reason this price reduction was possible is that the factories cut production costs every conceivable way: by using fewer parts, by using lower-quality plastics and cheaper components, and especially by slashing budgets for technical support and customer service.  One thing particularly irksome to me is that most manufacturers found they can shave perhaps a whole 50 cents off the cost of a laptop by not including a recovery CD.  When the consumer needs to have that restore CD and finds out that not having it is going to cost them dearly, it is usually their local IT support tech guy (me) who gets the blame.

Fresh out of the box, any new laptop works great.  As time passes though, it starts to slow down as files become corrupted, buggy software gets installed, the hard disk starts to access less reliably, memory chips develop errors, caches fill, and registry errors accumulate.  Preventive maintenance can help some but even that cannot possibly alter the reality that as mechanical devices age they simply wear out.  Inevitably the user complains their computer is “soooooo slooooooow!” and this typically comes to a crisis point after a computer has been used with zero maintenance for around two or three years.

Corporate bean counters have crunched the numbers to determine that for a very low price they can afford to produce and deliver a computer that is of a good enough quality to last two or three years.  So naturally they realize if the whole computer needs to be replaced that often this need automatically deals with all the other issues related to performance.  This is why the most bargain laptops have such a short life.

This is not to say that high-quality computer systems are a thing of the past.  A number of manufacturers still manufacture ruggedized systems designed to be much more dependable and withstand more and longer use.  Some refer to these computers as “enterprise” or “business class” and some professionals still prefer to pay more for their computers knowing their investment should last considerably longer.

The exact opposite is true of most consumers.  They may say they want quality and reliability, but when it comes time to buy, very few buyers are willing to pay out thousands of dollars extra to get that superior quality.  John Ruskin knew all about this too when he said “The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can’t be done.”

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.