Unofficial Advice on Buying a Laptop for UNC Use

By Dr. Gregory Newby

This page is intended to give advice on the purchase of a laptop computer. It is geared towards students in the School of Information and Library Science and others who are required by their UNC program to purchase a laptop computer.

This page is not an official document or official advice from UNC or SILS. It is simply one individual's attempt to help people in making their laptop purchase decision.


Buying a Laptop: Guidelines, Background and Choices

Contents

  1. Just give me some quick advice, please
  2. Is this official advice?
  3. Who are you? Why should I read what you have to say?
  4. Why shouldn't I just buy the current UNC CCI laptop?
  5. What's a laptop computer?
  6. How much does a laptop cost?
  7. Will my laptop last all 4 years at UNC?
  8. UNC's CCI offers some perks not found elsewhere. What is their value?
  9. I did comparison shopping, and it's hard to see which is the best deal
  10. Should I buy online or in a store?
  11. Do I need an external monitor, keyboard, etc?
  12. So, what laptop did you buy?
  13. Dell Laptop Assessment, 1 year Later

Just give me some quick advice, please

Shop around, and take the time to compare what you get for different pricing. Look at the different components, and decide which you need. Don't just consider price. Also think about things like the brand name and purchase location, features, weight and usability. If possible, visit a store or other location where you can actually use the model you are thinking about, to see how you like the keyboard, expansion ports, and display.

You will probably be spending at least $1800 on your computer, and spending countless hours using it. Try to get the right one for your needs.

Is this official advice?

No. This page does NOT contain any official policy or advice. I am not representing UNC, SILS or anyone else. If you want official advice, go elsewhere (probably the Official CCI pages or the SILS Computing Requirements page.

In fact, UNC administrators, particularly Mariane Moore (the campus CIO and Vice Chancellor for Information Technology who implemented the CCI), have made it clear they do not want my input on any laptop topics related to UNC. It is my opinion that UNC desires students to purchase laptops directly from UNC, without educating themselves about alternatives or shopping around.

I have asked repeatedly for "inside" information about laptops, but have received none. Things I would like to know:

Who are you? Why should I read what you have to say?

I'm an assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science at UNC, and have been here since fall 1997. Prior to that, I worked in a similar position at the U. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). I teach in areas related to information technology, including INLS 102, Information Tools, INLS 181, Internet Applications, INLS187, Information Security, and INLS183, Distributed Systems and Administration.

I've been programming and using computers since 1977 -- everything from Commodore Pets to the largest supercomputers from Cray, SGI and IBM. At UIUC, I developed and ran a community computing system (Prairienet) that had 14,000 active users. My budgetary oversight for Prairienet exceeded $250,000. Here at UNC, I've helped to shape the SILS computing environment, and have received over $1million in grants develop high-end open source Web search engine software, 3D digital libraries, and other projects.

You are probably reading this page because you are trying to get help in making a purchase decision for a laptop computer. If there is anything here that helps you, great! If not, then you can move on to other information sources. If you have feedback or comments, you can send me email

Why shouldn't I just buy the current UNC CCI laptop?

Maybe you should. I'm not trying to make a decision for you. What I advocate is becoming an educated consumer, and making an informed decision. My experience is that UNC does not encourage this, and does its best to discourage alternatives.

What's a laptop computer?

"Laptop" is a general term refering to a computer that has a built-in display and keyboard, and is intended to be portable. Today's laptops weight between 2-10 lbs. and can incorporate a wide array of technologies. They usually cost at least $1000, and can exceed $5000. Laptops are more appropriately called Notebooks, you can safely use either term interchangeably.

How much does a laptop cost?

In the US, there are relatively few laptop manufacturers and little market for older or outdated laptops (partially because they are so expensive to fix and upgrade). Thus, there's not as much variety or bargain pricing as other types of computers.

Generally, you can expect to spend $1700-$2200 for a mid-range modern laptop, $3000 for a higher-end (not top-of-the-line), and as little as $800-$1400 for a low-end model.

Prices usually don't include sales tax, which in N.C. is 6.5% for computers. Things like external monitors and keyboards are not included unless it says so specifically.

Will my laptop last all 4 years at UNC?

Barring accident, your laptop should give you four years of service. However, the rate of change in computing means that your computer will start to feel old within about 2 years. At the end of 4 years, it's likely that your computer won't handle all the new devices and software that are available.

My advice is to plan on considering a new laptop purchase after about 2 years. Depending on your financial situation, and how much you use the computer, you might decide to wait longer.

For an idea about the rate of change in computing, take a look at an article I wrote in April 1998, Laptop Plan: Good Motivation, Poor Choices. Four years before I wrote the first version of this document (summer 1997), a high-end laptop would have had a hard drive of about 1GB, a maximum of 40MB memory, and a CPU operating at about 100Mhz. There were no USB ports, and displays were smaller with less resolution. A CDROM might not have been available. As you can guess, this computer might still work today, but would have problems running modern software and interfacing with modern devices.

UNC's CCI offers some perks not found elsewhere. What is their value?

First, check out the perks. They have changed annually since the CCI started. There are five main perks currently (note that insurance was added for 2002-03, but was not available in 2001-02. Your homeowner's/renter's insurance might cover your laptop against theft and some other types of loss -- check it out, and make sure you understand what the deductible is!)

  1. Kensington lock and cable. The CCI pages used to claim the retail value of this item is about $150, but the UNC Student Store sells one for about $30. Make sure your laptop has a slot to accept a laptop lock.
  2. On-site repair and loaner. This is very nice. CCI has not provided statistics on the use or turnaround time, so it's hard to know just how good the service is (I have heard some good stories, and some complaints). But for comparison, major laptop vendors like Dell and Compaq offer next-day mail-in service (without loaners) as part of their basic warranty. An important component is to see what's NOT included in warranty repair: often the display is excluded, and accidental damage may not be covered. At UNC, the warranty does not include the screen, the the insurance does appear to cover it.
  3. Software. UNC's software preload $200+ valuation is, I think, a very high estimate. Most of the software that is pre-loaded is either free or comes included with most laptops. The only costly software is MS Office, which costs $130. Supposedly the $130 is included in the CCI laptop purchase price, so students who do not buy their computer from UNC must pay $130 to use the Microsoft campus site license. (Watch for more changes in this situation: it changed several times during 2001-02, and in fact in early December 2001 ATN's software page said they would give the licensed Microsoft software to any UNC student. The UNC media services library also told me in Spring 2002 they would loan the Microsoft media CDs to any UNC student, faculty or staff.)
  4. Extended warranty. A 4-year computer warranty is nice, especially because the cost of repairing a laptop computer can be excessive. But many laptops now come with a 3-year standard warranty, others offer 1 year, and many can be extended (the cost of a 3-year extension to a 1-year warranty was about $150 at BestBuy when I shopped in 2001).
  5. Insurance. There are not enough details about the 2002-03 insurance policy for me to talk about it effectively. It might be a good deal. The $250. deductible means it will only be good for major non-warranty repairs (i.e., the screen), theft or other total loss. As mentioned above, your renters or homeowner's policy might already cover theft or other total loss.

The bottom line is, shop around, and incorporate the actual costs of CCI perks that you may need. It's very difficult to gauge the value of the on-site repair and loaner program, but to me this is the only feature that CCI offers that is not a mainstream, everyday standard item.

I did comparison shopping, and it's hard to see which is the best deal

Join the club. There are scores of models, even if you only look at the major vendors. IBM, who supplies the CCI computers that UNC sells, is no better than other major vendors such as Dell and Compaq at making your choice easier. Here is my advice:

  1. Start a list of potential models and their features
  2. Identify the things you really would like to have (such as a lighter weight, or CD-RW/DVD, or larger display), as well as the main standard features (hard drive, memory...)
  3. Look online to see what's available. Keep in mind that models change, and so do prices. Try to complete your analysis within a week or two, and be prepared to do it again if you are not going to purchase immediately.
  4. Find the models that seem best, and add on any needed components to meet your specifications.
  5. The outcome will be a list of models with similar features, but different models and vendors. This will be the basis for your decision.
  6. Make sure you include things like included software, lock, warranty, etc.
  7. Also look at shipping charges, taxes (you probably will have to pay N.C. sales tax or the tax for the state the computer is shipped to, no matter what).
  8. Pay attention to shipping availability. Most laptops will take a week or two to ship, but some are not available for awhile. (The CCI has consistently announced new models 2 or 3 months before they are available to students.)
  9. If you are thinking of buying from a retail store, you can usually still get the exact same information from the store's Web pages.
Should I buy online or in a store?

If you buy from UNC, any method is fine. The delivery and the service are the same, whether you purchase using a paper form, a Web store, or in the RAM shop on campus.

But for non-UNC purchases, you can choose either mail-order or to go to a retail store. Each has its advantages, but overall I recommend mail order.

The advantage of a store is that they might have the computer in stock (no waiting), and the store may do some in-store service. But the in-stock computers might not meet your configuration needs, and in-store service might not be that good. A national vendor with a regional presence you might consider is BestBuy, but I've never heard of any type of good service for purchase or warranty. Your experience may, of course, be different!

Unfortunately, almost no local computer shops sell custom laptop computers (unlike desktop computers, which are widely available). The problems of inventory and incompatiliby among parts has made it hard for small dealers to compete. But if you find a good local dealer, you can probably expect a higher level of service for a comparable price.

The advantage of mail-order is that you can probably custom-configure your system, and you will get a competitive price. The disadvantage is that if something goes wrong (e.g., the wrong order or a broken component) you will need to get on the phone and may have a hard time getting it fixed. There are several places online that rank customer service and turnaround time for laptops -- generally, Dell and HP/Compaq are pretty good, and Gateway can have problems. Sony's consumer product support has always been crummy, in my opinion, but I don't know how their computer service fares. Toshiba has outstanding service and support, but tends to be more highly priced than the competition.

Do I need an external monitor, keyboard, etc?

Yes! Laptops have terrible ergonomics for most people: the keyboard and display are attached, so you can't have the laptop at a good level for both typing and viewing. External components can help greatly.

My recommendation is to get an external monitor, keyboard and mouse. The monitor should be at least 17" (these are $200-$400, sometimes less -- but watch out for shipping charges, which can get quite high!). Select a keyboard you like. I use a split MS Natural Pro keyboard that many people find intolerable: different people have different opinions. You might even prefer the laptop keyboard.

For good ergonomics, follow these general guidelines (but remember, everyone is different):

  1. The middle of the monitor should be just below eye-level;
  2. Straight wrists, and arms comfortably extended;
  3. Reaching for the mouse repetitively can cause strain. Consider moving the mouse closer, using a built-in mouse on the keyboard, or learning and using keystroke alternative to the mouse;
  4. Get a good chair: adjustable height, arm rests, adjustable back. Your feet should be comfortably on the floor, and the desk at a height so your forearms and wrists are about 90 degrees out from your elbow.

Does this sound like a laptop is an ergonomic computing tool? Probably not! And the desks and chairs in most UNC classrooms are similarly non-ergonomic. It is in your best interest to pay attention to how you position yourself and your equipment, to minimize the risk of strain, fatigue or injury.

You have more control over your home/dorm environment, so take the time to adjust things to make your computing enjoyable and healthy.

So, what laptop did you buy?

I'll only tell you if you promise you are going to educate yourself and shop around for your own laptop. Do you promise? Good. A review of the laptop follows, below.

First, realize that I bought this computer in early May, 2001. Things change quickly - as you read this, the computer I bought is no longer the same price, and different configurations are available.

My grant provided some funds for computers, and I decided to purchase a laptop that I can also use for my teaching and other purposes. I went through all the steps mentioned above, and shopped extensively. I also did very detailed analysis of the CCI offerings, and comparable models available directly from IBM.

In the end, I found the CCI models to be non-competitive. I had a choice of the older CCI model from UNC (which was over-priced and 5 months out of date), a similar model from the N.C. state contract (same computer, costs less, but not available to students), or to pay for then wait for the new CCI model which was scheduled to ship sometime in July. I wanted it in May or early June, so for pricing and timing purposes, the CCI models were no good. Also, I wanted either a CD-RW or a CD-RW/DVD player. IBM considered these to be options -- they always include a CD (read-only), but a CD-RW was about $365 more, and CD-RW/DVD was not available.

(Update 2002: CD-RW is now standard on CCI models for 2002-03)

Because there is no state contract for Sony, I wasn't able to easily consider the Vaio line. This is too bad, because they would have been a contender. The Toshibas looked good, but a bit over-priced. Gateway has had service problems, as mentioned above. HP was viable, but state contract offerings were limited. Other state contract vendors like Micron and Acer don't even sell laptops (OK, Acer does, but their reputation is not good; in 2002 Micron started selling laptops again). That left me with IBM, Dell and Compaq.

I did extensive comparisons of the offerings from these 3 companies. All of the factors I mentioned above (particularly availability of the CD-RW and shipping availability) played a role. In the end, Dell had the right stuff, were prepared to ship quickly, and competitive pricing.

The model I bought is in the business/education/government line, so might not be available to everyone. Here it is:

I also bought a $179 Cisco Aironet wireless network card, which connects to the wireless network in my office building. I already had an external monitor, but bought a small portable "Happy Hacker Lite II" USB keyboard for better ergonomics.

So far, I am very happy with the purchase. In my analysis, I got considerably more computer for less money than the then-forthcoming T22 high-end UNC IBM laptop. I did not get the Kensington lock, and do not have walk-in service or a loaner. I bought a lock for about $35 from UNC student stores.

There are many possibilities for cheaper computers, and different configurations. This is what I chose, because I wanted something fast enough and with enough features to be used as a replacement for my desktop computer, but without more weight than necessary. Even though this is a nearly-top-of-the-line computer, I anticipate looking to replace it in less than 2 years.

Dell Laptop Assessment, 1 year Later

(June, 2002) After 1 year, I have used the Dell laptop daily. I bring it home and back to school, it's truly a desktop replacement. I've taken it to Europe and Canada, and many places in the US. Overall, I'm happy with it.

In the first 6 months I had the Dell, I needed service twice for a problem with the DVD/CD-RW (it kept falling out due to a loose connector). The first time, they overnighted me a new drive to replace myself. When that didn't work, they sent out a technician to fix it with a 2-day turnaround (he came to my office). Again, this is corporate-level support that might not be available to home buyers. The DVD/CD-RW drive still falls out of the computer occasionally after I've carried it around in my backpack. To me, this is a definite defect in workmanship, but it's not too annoying and the drive works.

My home and office setup involve using an external monitor (21" Hitachi at home, 22" Ilyama at work), keyboard (MS Natural Pro), and mouse (MS or Kensington USB scrollmouse). On the occasions where I use the laptop elsewhere (like in faculty meetings), I find the built-in keyboard, screen and mouse tolerable for short periods, but wouldn't want to try to spend a long time using my computer that way.

I've used the campus wireless network extensively (Manning Hall is covered by wireless). I discovered that the steel lockers on the 3rd floor of Manning create interference with the wireless access point (one room over from my office), so usually use wired Ethernet in my office but wireless elsewhere (including at home).

The specific model I bought is no longer available, but comparably-equipped models from Dell and elsewhere are about $2000 (a decrease of about 25% in cost in 1 year). Sometime this year I will buy another laptop, but right now I'm waiting for a better performance boost. HP is supposed to start selling (non-mobile) P-IV chips at 2.2Ghz, with some other high-end options. This would be a good improvement in speed and capability for my laptop. The current breed of Mobile Pentium-IV laptops at 1.5Ghz or so are generally very similar to the laptop I have.

If you've read this far, let me offer my summary advice for students thinking about which laptop to buy for UNC:


Got One to Sell?

If you have an older laptop to sell for a few hundred dollars or less, email Michael Hart of Project Gutenberg. He might be interested.


Most recently updated: June 9, 2002; minor typos fixed November 20, 2005