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Taking a Risk with Ebay

I did something today I thought I never would do: I bought a laptop from ebay!

It’s scary, and the biggest stumbling block turned out to be the ebay seller’s failure to fully identify itself on ebay. Turns out the company does have a web presence , but I had no way of knowing that until after the purchase was finished. I made four different phone calls to make sure sure they were IBM business partners. (I spoke to IBM’s customer support from India, Georgia, New York, etc, and they were no help determining this).

In my haste and disorientation I failed to notice that the same seller was selling something nearly identical on the next day; instead of a 60 gig drive, it had 80; instead of a CD writer/DVD reader, it had a DVD writer. Both items essentially cost the same. (Update: the ebay vendor agreed to swap laptops. Sweet!)
Now I cannot be accused of lacking diligence or doing my research. The most maddening part about buying a laptop was 1)making sure I could afford it, 2)trying to find the best value, 3)trying to buy something that would run well in linux. The big sticklers turned out to be that the big companies were still fairly slow about shipping laptops, especially for laptops in great demand. I was going to a conference in the last weekend in February, so I really wanted to have something in hand by then.
Gosh, most default configurations of laptops just don’t have enough RAM on them. Getting 2 gigs was a requirement for me, and yet, a good 50-75% of laptops still only carried 512MB (or if you were lucky, 1 gig). The other problem was that the big manufacturers were still selling hard drives with 5400 rpm; a considerable number of HP laptops (even the pricey ones) still were configured for 4200 rpm’s–which to my mind is unthinkable in this day and age.

The other problem was Dell coupons. Lordy, they change every day, always expiring. Monday I qualified for $400 off, Tuesday I qualified for $500, Wednesday I qualified for $600 with a coupon code, Thursday I qualified for $300 off, and today I qualified only for a stinking $250 rebate. Yes, it’s kind of fun keeping up with them, but after a while it can be fatiguing. Finally, there is the problem of peace of mind. Dell offers extended warranties and even accident protection. In fact, though, getting a latop replaced can be a bugger. When the screen goes, it seems you have to throw the whole thing away. I would like to see laptop parts become more interchangeable (or at least easier to replace), but then again, laptops miniaturize a lot of components; even with my PC hardware repair certification, I don’t feel confident opening the back and fixing anything.

Shall I whine about linux support? One good thing is that because I would be running linux, technical support wouldn’t be as much a deciding factor. On the other hand, I needed some way of knowing that other people had tackled the various HW configuration issues I would also face. With Dell, you had a choice of using Intel’s Core Duo integrated graphics (ugh) or upgrading with a $300 nvidia graphics card (double ugh!). The Core Duo laptops didn’t yet have a supported linux wireless driver (although Intel would be bringing one out very soon, they promise). But HP’s 64bit AMD laptop didn’t have wireless anything; you just had to use pcmia.
A more basic problem is that vendors know their product the best, and yet they cannot objectively recommend the right option for a particular person. Do laptop hard drives need to be 7200 rpm? Or could they just be 5400? What really is the price difference between the three cpu’s you are able to choose?

When you are on the Dell website and read the excellent sales information, you end up believing that you need everything. It’s not Dell’s fault; it’s just how information is presented online. Contrast that with buying a laptop at a store. You have 10 laptops in the store, and then you whittle them down until you find one you really like. Although I’ve spent almost a month researching laptops, I still can’t tell you what TFT is or whether there really is any difference between Sonoma and Dothan, or whether upgrading to 667MHz RAM would really make that much difference.

Shopping online, you tend to view laptops as a sickly cousin of desktops, underpowered and inadequate. I quickly discovered that it almost never makes sense to shop for a lowend laptop. Buying a high end laptop adds longevity and flexibility to your laptop’s lifespan while imposing a heavy price.

Here we see the cost of technological anxiety and corporate groupthink. Innovation continues at a rapid pace; mass production is driving down the cost of everything, and yet, we still don’t have a laptop that suits our needs for under $1500. When will it ever end? And why do “our needs” continue to expand where it always costs more than $1500 to satisfy them?

Final thoughts: although I’m happy with my purchase (assuming all goes well), I can’t help feeling ambivalent. Should I have spent more? What if I have to do this…? Wouldn’t it be nice to have something bright and shiny with all the latest specs? On the other hand, the thought of all the money I avoided spending makes me feels like I barely avoided a harrowing accident.

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