by Bob Walters | October 01, 2004

It’s so enticing: An ad touts a sub-$800 notebook, and you think, “Now is the time to order a new computer and finally become a road warrior.” You quickly access the website or call the toll-free sales line, only to watch as the $800 bargain becomes a $1,200 to $1,500 monster.
    There certainly are bargains to be had, but prices seem to have stabilized lately, and the baseline models on sale lack many of the essentials we all have come to require. Let’s consider Dell (, one of the more popular brands today. Its Inspiron 1000 has a list price of $799 and has been advertised at $695. The laptop comes with a 2.20 GHZ processor, 256 MB RAM, a 30 GB hard drive, a CD/DVD combo drive and Windows XP Home.
    Don’t be too quick to order, however. You can’t really make any significant changes on these bargain-basement babies. For example, if you are going to use the Inspiron 1000 for business purposes, either at the home office or as a traveling version of your desktop, then you will probably need to upgrade to XP Professional and will want more than just the included Office Productivity tools.
    But you can’t upgrade the $799 PC with such options, so now you have to consider the Inspiron 5150, which, without the upgrades, starts at $1,000. XP Professional usually costs around $70, and an upgrade to Microsoft Office Small Business (which includes PowerPoint) costs about $250. So the $799 notebook that initially caught your eye is now a $1,300 purchase, and, by the way, the CD/DVD combo drive that was standard on the $799 model costs another $53 on the Inspiron 5150.
    It’s easy to pick on Dell, because the brand is so ubiquitous, but all the computer makers have adopted this used-car-lot selling method. Go to any of the main notebook manufacturers Gateway, HP/Compaq, IBM and Toshiba and you will find the same basic situation.
    Also, you should look into wireless connectivity I recommend external cards rather than internal, because the technology is still changing and it’s less expensive to buy a new card than to replace a chip. Also price an external storage device for backups, like a USB flash drive. These wireless cards and flash drives are available at computer electronics stores and Office Depot, Staples and WalMart (to name a few).

The Good News
Prices have fallen and are expected to continue dropping on those space- and eye-saving flat-panel screens. Monitors priced close to $1,000 just last year are now under $700, and they’re expected to drop another 5 to 10 percent by the end of the year. The average price for a standard 15-inch flat-panel monitor is now around $332, and that is expected to drop to below $300 by the end of the year. 
    The other good news is the price for key-chain storage devices are tumbling. You can now pick up a 256 MB USB flash drive for under $50. These are great for storage, backups and taking presentations with you. Just copy the presentation to the flash drive, drop it in your pocket, plug it into the on-site PC and start speaking.

A Handy Gadget
Those desiring an all-in-one solution should see Hewlett-Packard’s IPAQ Pocket PC h6315 with Wi-Fi. This miniature notebook also is a digital phone, camera, e-book reader, PDA and video player. Exclusive to T-Mobile and priced at $499, this IPAQ is unique in that it is a quad-band GSM phone, meaning it will work in North America, Europe and around the world. It also has Bluetooth networking, so you can use a wireless headset. This is heftier than what I would consider a “pocket” device but it is pretty impressive.