My wife really needed a computer for basic communications and productivity applications for a business she has started. While we have a couple of aging desktops that the kids use, something portable would be far more useful, both because the business involves direct sales and because she can't stand wires. If it's not pretty, it needs to be confined to my basement office.
So I started looking for deals. I knew she didn't need anything too fancy, although the machine would need to handle digital photography software (including a few proprietary apps for the business) and would need to not drive me nuts in terms of performance when I ended up using it. On a walk through Best Buy Tuesday night, a big yellow $350 price tag caught my eye. I quickly turned away from a Gateway with a Celeron M, half a gig of RAM, and Vista Home Basic. A bit more walking, though, brought me to a $450 Compaq. Under that magical $500 mark, I could swing it on store credit, and better yet, it was a dual core Pentium with a full gig of RAM, Vista Home Premium, and a 15.4" screen. It even had a DVD burner.
Why so cheap? The particular processor (an Intel T2080, running at 1.73GHz) is on its way out to be replaced by Intel Core processors. My wife doesn't know the difference between a Core and the inside of an apple, though, so I snagged it. Multitasking performance is more than acceptable, it's well put together, and the screen is remarkably bright. The speakers are even decent Altec Lansings.
My wife happens to be very much like the majority of my users. She's not a power user, by any means, but she knows when a computer is dogging. She knows when the computer isn't capable of doing what she needs it to do. Like the teachers at my school, her needs can be met quite handily by any entry-level dual core processor (now almost a necessity to handle malware protection, communication software, and productivity software running concurrently) and 1-2 GB of RAM.
Unlike the teachers at my school, she doesn't need a purchase order to buy a laptop. She can take advantage of deals when they come along, ignore state contracts, and buy what makes sense, when it makes sense. Unfortunately, Tiger Direct, BJs, and Best Buy don't take POs. They aren't on the state contract lists and don't provide leasing or support services to non-profits.
So I couldn't buy 40 of these laptops on the cheap and replace the machines that are currently falling apart in their laptop bags. In some ways, this is for the best. The purchasing process is designed to prevent the unsavvy from making bad choices; in my case, I would have needed to install Linux or license Vista business to handle network authentication, driving up the costs. I would also have 40 laptops in need of disposal and replacement in 3 years without a lease agreement to make that process easier. Fine. It does, however, mark the first time that I've seen portable computers with a reasonable degree of horsepower at this price point. For users who can't be well-served by a machine like the ASUS Eee, it looks like some very aggressive pricing on mainstream laptops is right around the corner. If these prices can just trickle down to someone who can take a purchase order...