Don't cheap out on consumer hardware

With budgets what they are these days, it's all too easy to look for ways to cut costs. As a rule of thumb, consumer-grade hardware shouldn't be on the list of money-savers.

It's that time of year again. We're almost a month into the fiscal year, we're a month away from the beginning of the school year and, if hardware hasn't already been purchased, it's just a matter of time before it starts arriving and deployment will begin. Unfortunately, with budgets what they are these days, it's all too easy to look for ways to cut costs. As a rule of thumb, consumer-grade hardware shouldn't be on the list of money-savers.

When you look at TigerDirect, NewEgg, Dell.com, and any number of other sites that sell hardware to schools as well as to consumers, there are always incredible deals on laptops, desktops, printers, and other bits of geek-joy. Sometimes, the deals are so good, they probably shouldn't be passed up. The deal I called out in this post netted me 5 very snappy quad-core laptops for a mere $2500. Having used them for a month now, I can safely say that they won't stand up to abuse, but are suitable for some pretty hard use in a school setting (or in a teacher's bag as he or she heads back and forth to school). There's little or no keyboard flex, they're light without being cheesy, and performance from the previous-generation AMD quad-cores is quite good, with no worries multitasking in just about any applications. Nice work, Acer.

In the same purchase, though, I snagged a Lenovo IdeaPad for $899. Second-generation Intel Core i7 quad-core processor, 8GB of RAM, discrete graphics, you name it. I bought it to ensure that I never have a performance-related hiccup at trade shows and to be able to capture and process video on the fly. Adobe Premier runs like a champ on this thing and 3D effects in Photoshop are smooth as can be. This little 14" beast screams.

But...

The screen flexes like paper in a breeze, the keyboard is nowhere close to its Thinkpad cousins, audio is mediocre (not what I need for running training or giving classes), and the plastic frame bends enough in a packed laptop bag that I now have marks transferring from the keyboard to the glossy screen. It's power brick is nearly brick-sized and the color saturation on the screen makes me very happy for my Gunnar computer glasses to even out the tones and glare a bit. Yes, the performance rocks out loud, and what do I expect for $900 bucks, right? But I'd never give this computer to a student or teacher. It would be a $900 pile of rubble in a month.

A lot of consumer-grade PCs are like this. Dell's Latitude line is nearly indestructible and HPs Elitebooks are pretty tough, too. In fact, the 5 Acers I bought are very much the exception to the rule. The problem is that durability and easy repairs in robust cases cost extra. Those consumer prices are so attractive and budgets are so tight...How easy would it be to just walk into Best Buy and snag a bunch of inexpensive PCs?

Few, if any, of these computers, though, are designed for the rigors of a school or enterprise setting. In most cases, in fact, looking at off-lease refurbished enterprise-grade computers may actually be a better choice. When cutting edge performance is a necessity (and sometimes it is in educational settings), then it's going to be time to shell out some cash. "Deals" are rarely as good a deal as they initially appear when they're bricked in a year or two.

Up next, "Why you really do need a workstation." And yes, the same principles apply to these pricey little guys.

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