Should You Buy a Laptop from Walmart or a Manufacturer?

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.

where to buy a laptop

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.

15 Responses to Should You Buy a Laptop from Walmart or a Manufacturer?

  1. i dont see anything wrong with buying a wal-mart computer.. for 90% of the users out there, they are primarily going to use their PC for browsing and email.. a cheap wal-mart pc will do this just fine.. i work and IT, but i am not too proud.

    • JP says:

      I was a little worried about being shunned. Especially from the Mac crowd. However, I don’t think I’ll be back to the big name manufacturers any time soon.

  2. If it fits my needs then I have no problem buying something like that at Wal-Mart. I actually bought my laptop at Costco last year. The computer had major issues from the get go and they accepted it as a return with no questions asked. I bought a different one from them and it works like a charm.

  3. I bought my last two laptops at Microcenter. I bought my MacAir for $900 (it was a super nice deal). And we bought my brother an Asus for $250. Nice computer for the value.
    I don’t really go to a retailer for advice. I shop online, find the computer i want, and then check deals for weeks until I find one that I want.

    HP Computers suck. I bought a fancy $1200 HP computer when I was a freshman and I always had trouble with it….

    • JP says:

      I’ve always been pleased with HP. Although, I’m definitely over the stigma of online custom built systems. I may even go with a netbook next time.

  4. Netbooks pretty much suck so be glad you went with a real laptop! Unless they have improved in quality over the last two years they’re almost worthless. Glad you got a great deal!

  5. The problem I have with with Walmart electronics and ultra-budget computers in general is that to get to that price point, compromises are made on quality. Price the same model at Walmart and BestBuy and you will see a big price difference. How did the manufacturer afford to sell it to Walmart at such a big discount? By building machines from parts that didn’t pass quality control in the factory.

    The other thing to consider in deciding whether or not to buy a netbook is the size. Netbooks are just too cramped for my taste. Heck, I won’t even type on a full size laptop’s keyboard if I have more to write than a couple of paragraphs.

    • JP says:

      I’m not sure that what you propose is the actual business model for Walmart (Walmart as electronic Outlet store). For some brands, Walmart is a large distribution channel worth selling at lower margins for higher total profit. I would also guess that Walmart also moves a lot of electronic merchandise that might be in danger of obsolescence. The computer I bought is definitely a generation or two behind the most advanced. This would also merit a much lower cost.

      Generally speaking, the Dells and HP sites offer customization, which is usually sold at a premium to shoppers. I would expect that as the market ages, this type of selling would become the more expensive alternative to shopping.

      Just some of my thoughts.

      • Walmart’s business model is to sell merchandise at as large a discount as possible compared to other retailers. As they have gotten larger, they have been able to apply more pricing pressure on the sources. So much pressure, in fact, that electronics manufacturers are frequently turning to using parts that do not pass all of their quality control tests.

        It isn’t just a matter of older equipment. Electronics manufacturers are actually selling different equipment to Walmart than they are to Best Buy or other places. If you compare the “same” model at Walmart and another location, you will notice a slight change, such as adding a letter to the end of the model number. This is to indicate that it is a different manufacture specifically for Walmart to be sold at their cut-throat prices.

        • Ahhhh…I completely misunderstood your first comment.

          This sounds very plausible. Especially, for no-name brands selling on low price and no fear in hurting a non-existing brand name.

        • Dan says:

          There is absolutely no proof of that claim. It is a matter of dated and base-line machines. Doesn’t mean they are made of tin foil and rubber bands! Walmart rarely carries the latest generation hardware. This is where the discount is seen. I can order a “walmart special” from the manufacturer’s website at nearly the same price as the walmart computer to back that up. I seriously doubt manufacturers keep make “walmart computers” and “best buy” computers. They just put together their models and sell. Walmart gets their base product out in front of millions of consumers that otherwise might not go to a best buy, so the discount for the “viewership and new customers” pays for itself.

  6. I usually buy my electronic needs from Tigerdirect.com or Newegg.com, because the merchandise is wholesale. Walmart computers can be hit or miss, actually i’m using one right now. This particular one is decent for most everyday needs, but doesn’t quite cut it with my video rendering software. Definitely don’t buy the cheapest computer you can find at Walmart, unless you like things to crash or realize you don’t have the specs to do anything. As for the average Joe, Walmart should suffice.

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