I recently saw a Facebook friend solicit opinions on where to buy a new laptop. Asking for advice is a good idea, because a laptop purchase can easily break the budget and cut down your emergency fund. It’s one you don’t want to regret.
My friend’s Dell recently crashed after only two years and he was not interested in going that route again. Having bought a new laptop just a week ago, I felt like I had a lot of insight to give. As I thought about the best places to buy laptops, I realized that the consumer market for computers has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. I thought it would be helpful to explain how shopping for computers has evolved.
The History of Buying Computers
This is a good refresher for us old people, but also a great introduction for young adults looking for their first computer. Depending on the generation, you might get a different response about where you should be buying a computer.
Most of us techno-dinosaurs will probably steer you away from retailers. Back in the old days, when computers didn’t have mice and floppy disks were floppy, there weren’t a lot of options on where to buy your computer. You would go to one of three or four retail chains and drop $4,000 to $5,000 on a bulky desktop. Retailers relied on salesmen to sell their product and the experience felt similar to purchasing a car.
Luckily for consumers, computer buying evolved. Retailers charged far too much money for computers, mostly because consumers didn’t have a lot of options. Companies like Dell and Gateway entered the market and offered customized computers at a fraction of the cost retailers charged. Retailers were so overpriced, the Dells of the world could make a better, cheaper computer and still earn a hefty profit.
Over the last ten years of computer purchasing, I’ve lived in the manufacturer market. I bought custom built systems from places like Dell or HP. Based on the quality, hardware offered and price, I’ve been very confident that my purchases were the best for my money. However, it’s not necessarily the case today.
Buying from a Retailer Might be Your Best Option
Retailers may have been beat in the late 90s and the first decade of the century by savvy custom computer builders, but the market might be shifting back in favor of retailers.
Two weeks ago, I headed out to the vast internet computer market. Being short on cash, I decided that I wasn’t about to drop $1,000 on a new computer. I went to my mobile carrier last summer to get a smartphone and they handed me a free piece of expensive technology that did everything a laptop could accomplish. So, I set my laptop budget to be equal or less than the retail value of a smartphone.
With budget in mind, I went to the place I usually shopped for computers. I was very disappointed in the HP/Dell laptop selections. If you’ve ever dealt with them, you know the drill. You start off with a shell of a computer – most of them were in my budget – but then you need to add on numerous items before you get to the final price. Often, this will double the cost (which was the case for me).
As a BJs member, I remembered seeing retail laptops in my price range. I decided to give the retail market a new chance to grab my business. I found near-instant gratification at most of the retailers when I found prices as low as $325. Ultimately, I purchased a laptop for $399; from Walmart, of all places!
What I Bought
I didn’t get anything top of the line, and I presume that this is the real value of shopping retailers. Mostly, I use my computer to write finance articles and read finance articles to find information to write more finance articles. Being an accountant/finance guy, I also need to use Excel. Occasionally, when the stars align and the earth’s rotation shifts to a 26 hour day, I’d like to play video games that are not very demanding of my computer hardware. My feeling was that I should shoot for something middle-of-the-road in terms of computer hardware.
I was rewarded with a moderately fast processor and graphics card, and a good amount of memory and hard drive space. In other words, I got exactly what I wanted instead of spending twice as much for something twice as fancy.
The only downside is that they only offered the discounted computer in the color purple. Not very manly, but a purple computer works just as well as a pink computer.
Walmart is Not for Everyone
My laptop is definitely somewhere in the middle in terms of capability. I probably won’t want to play high-end video games or render feature length videos. However, it’s going to be more than enough for reading, writing, playing my music and the occasional video game.
I’ve known dozens of people shell out big bucks for an HP or a Dell, when really all they needed was the Walmart special. Perhaps it’s time for more computer shoppers to check out their local discount retailer?
Did I Still Overspend?
I’m very happy with what I bought, but part of me wonders if I needed a laptop at all. Thanks to the wonders of Google Drive, you no longer need tons of hard drive space and hardware to run Word and Excel, you can just use an online version. You can even upload and store around 20,000 songs on Google Play. Perhaps I’m too attached to big bulky laptops when I could have slimmed down to a netbook and paid a mere $200.
What do you think?
* I received no payment from Walmart for this article. I’m just a happy customer.