Apple Archive

The $900 Notebook: Where Is Apple?

- 2007.03.06

In the past, whenever I'd buy a laptop it seemed that the machines I looked at were in the $1,500 to $2,000 range. These machines were fully-featured, very capable notebooks which were generally within the realm of up-to-date hardware.

The 12" PowerBook that I had been using cost me $1,900 with an AirPort card, for example. This machine had everything anyone could have possibly wanted - except for a DVD burner, something that I'd wished I'd ordered three years later. The Toshiba Satellite A25 that I've been using as a "temporary" computer had a list price of $1,599 when it was new, so it wasn't exactly a low-end model either.

However, the Toshiba wasn't up to the tasks that I needed to be doing, giving me problems with burning CDs and connecting to certain networks. This may have been partly due to Windows XP, as the wireless network management wasn't the best.

Buying a $1,000 Notebook

Regardless, at the end of last week I found myself looking for a new low-end computer. My budget: $1,000, and it had to be new, with a full warranty. I had about two hours to purchase it, due to the fact that I had to catch a plane.

These days, most of the notebook computers on sale tend to push the low - end model, so consumers see the $499 price tag, are drawn in, and then decide that they'd rather go for the $1,299 model with a DVD burner and better graphics.

I walked into Best Buy at about 1:00 p.m. on Sunday to find a large display of notebook computers including six different brands: Gateway, HP, Sony, Toshiba, Acer, and Compaq. I ruled out the Gateway's due to the simple fact that they looked cheap. HP was ruled out because the low-end models use AMD processors, which are not among the best for low power consumption in notebooks. Sony was ruled out because I've had bad experiences with them. Toshiba, because I wasn't crazy about my previous one, and the basic model only came with the basic version of Vista.

This left Acer and Compaq. Compaq machines tend to be very cheap - under $600 in this case - and even though the price was right, the features weren't.

Acer It Is

Acer, on the other hand seemed to have the best combination of price and features. They had two models on display, both under $1,000. Both featured 15" widescreens, dual-core processors, dual layer DVD burners, and built-in SD memory card slots. The $749 lower-end model came with a 1.6 GHz processor and an 80 GB hard drive, and the higher-end model, for $100 more, had the Centrino chipset as well as a 1.73 GHz processor and a 120 GB hard drive.

I figured that the added upgrades were worth the price, and walked out with a new Acer Aspire 5610-4537. If you thought Apple's model numbers in the 90s were confusing....

Considering that I won't be keeping the computer for too long, I figured it wasn't worth complaining about graphics cards and screens. All of the notebooks at Best Buy had glossy screens, and all but the highest-end models had the Intel GMA 950 shared RAM graphics processors found in the MacBook, Mac mini, and entry-level iMac.

Unfortunately, my Acer has both. The benefits of the glossy screen are that I get to see whether anyone's standing behind me as I work and that it looks nice when it's not in use. For practicality, however, I still don't like it. It's terrible for Photoshop, and if you're in direct sunlight, you'll be lucky if you can see the screen at all.

The graphics "card" isn't as bad as I initially feared. Integrated graphics have come a long way, and it's actually usable with Windows Vista's new Aero Glass feature (I won't get into comparing Vista and OS X in this article) with no slowdowns.

Why Not a MacBook?

As you can see, I didn't buy a Mac. For the money, I could have purchased a refurbished MacBook, which would have had a warranty just like a new machine.

There are a couple reasons why I didn't feel that this would be my best option. Firstly, I really felt that a 15" screen was going to be the most useful for me at the moment, and the MacBook only has a 13" display. Secondly, I had a matter of hours to get the computer, and I couldn't wait for Apple to ship me a computer.

The 1.83 GHz MacBook retails for $1,099 (or $949 refurbished), which was just outside of my budget. While slightly faster than the Acer, it has a smaller screen, and the base model has no DVD burner - not to mention that it comes with only 512 MB of RAM and a 60 GB hard drive.

Configuring to "usable" specs moves the MacBook's cost closer to $1,500. This is getting close to twice the price of the Acer.

'Cheap' Notebooks

How can Acer make them so cheaply? Firstly, they're not a completely mainstream brand (though they are gaining in popularity). Secondly, they share parts through their line of consumer notebooks. For instance, the same case is used for all of the models. You can see that there is a Bluetooth switch on the front, which does nothing, and vents on the side that are blocked (the vents in the back are the ones is uses).

This machine isn't the absolute latest in terms of technology. While it does have a large hard drive and a fair bit of RAM, the processor is the Intel Core Duo, not the newer, cooler running, more energy efficient Core 2 Duo. But for $900, this doesn't really matter.

Can Apple learn from this?

Yes, they say they don't like to make "cheap" computers, but it's unquestionable that it's these "cheap" models that are drawing consumers in to look at a computer from a particular manufacturer. Who isn't interested in hearing about a $479 notebook, regardless of the manufacturer?

Apple did have an entry-level $999 iBook G4 at one point, which worked perfectly with many people's $1,000 budget. These days, however, the expectation of features in a given price range is high, and $1,000 can buy a perfectly decent laptop computer running Windows.

A 'Cheaper' MacBook

While a low-end 15" screen notebook doesn't really make sense for Apple, since too many people would confuse it with their higher-end offerings, a low-end 12" notebook might be logical. For $899, a base model with a 1.73 GHz Core Duo processor, a Combo drive, and an 80 GB hard drive might make sense.

While the specs aren't quite up to those of the Acer, it keeps the Mac a premium product while still giving it an accessible price. And it would have a unique selling point - it's ultra-portability (one of the great things about the 12" iBook for students). Subnotebooks typically exist in a much higher price range and are therefore out of reach for consumers looking for a low cost notebook. Apple could easily fill this niche and introduce a machine with a price to entice consumers to its other computers.

In the meantime, I'm impressed with this Acer, especially for the price.

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