Is a free laptop for you?

How often does an at-first-glance great deal pan out to be less than expected in the end? Then again, it all depends on your expectations. PAUL WALLBANK

Paul Wallbank Tech Talk blog

By Paul Wallbank

A few weeks ago SmartCompany had a look at Telstra’s bundled mobile data plan that throws in a laptop if you sign up for 36 months.

The package raised the question of what makes a good business laptop. Can a business user get by with the $700 unit Telstra is offering? 

In my view you can, but there are limits and almost certainly you’ll end up spending more than the $700 sticker price.

The biggest additions are the warranties on offer. After-sales support is a big point of difference between cheap systems and premium products.

Often the better quality systems will have a three year warranty while the cheaper units only have 12 months. Given the cost of repairing portable computers, a three year parts and labour warranty is essential. This will add between $250 and $400 to your purchase price.

It’s tempting to increase the hard drive size, but this usually isn’t an issue given most users have a larger machine or server at their office that’s doing the bulk of the file storage. I tend to leave the hard drive as is.

Memory on the other hand is important. To really get the most from Vista you need at least 2Gb of RAM. So another $100 needs to be allowed to double the memory from the 1Gb that cheaper systems tend to come with.

Vista itself also may need to be upgraded, with budget laptops coming with either Vista Home Basic or Vista Home Premium. To connect to business networks you may need to upgrade to Vista Ultimate, which will add another $200 to the cost of the laptop.

So to get the computer up to the needs of the typical business user, you would be looking at spending $600 over the price of the laptop.

But we’re not finished. If you use Microsoft Office there will be another $300 or so depending upon the version that works for you. Taking the final price of that $700 laptop up to $1600.

As an entry level laptop, it’s going to be a pretty flimsy beast with a slower central processor unit. These laptops tend to be fairly clunky and heavy, which makes them less than ideal if you’re travelling with one.

So I’d really recommend looking at $1800 laptops and budget to spend around $2500 once all the extras are added in. I have some recommended specifications for what the typical user should expect in a laptop on my website.

That’s not to say a business user can’t get by with a cheap laptop. If you only type the odd email, you’re prepared to chance the warranty, and you already have a valid MS Office license or a free office alternative, then the $700 laptop may meet your needs.

Before buying a laptop have a look at what you want from a system. Making the right choice first time saves a lot of frustration down the track.


Paul Wallbank is Australia’s most heard computer commentator. For the last 10 years he has been the resident computer expert on ABC Local Radio and has written five computer books. Paul founded and built up a national IT support company, PC Rescue and has a free help website at IT Queries. Today he spends most of his time consulting and advising community and business groups on getting the most from their technology.

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