Saturday, March 01, 2008

What can you do when you need the portability of the MacBook Air but you only have 500 USD to spend ...

First things first - if you just want the HotAir in order to "make you look cool" (as probably 95% of the owners do) you have already lost that battle, time to go away, nothing for you here ... However if you really like the idea of a very portable notebook, you are not crazy about glamour and you only have very little money - keep reading - there is still hope :)

For a smart buyer there ARE a few low-cost alternatives but you will need to set your priorities straight - first real question is "does size matter to you ?" :) Or in other words - how good are you with very small screens and keyboards ? If you don't mind a VERY small screen and a small keyboard you can actually get something SMALLER than the MacBook Air starting NEW around 300-400 US$ - either the already famous Asus eeePC or the newer Everex Cloudbook - get the first if a more normal touchpad is important to you, the second if disk size is essential.

However there is a serious problem with both of the above - the screen is actually more than 3 times smaller than the Air and the keyboard can feel too small at first so you will NOT write your novel on a 7'' screen (and generally you should also avoid reading one if you care about your eyes).

If money was no object there were many other choices a LOT better than the HotAir - Panasonic W or Y series, Lenovo X61 and X61T, Dell Latitude XT, and soon the Lenovo X300 which seems quite nice ... but obviously those are in the same price range as the Air (but without skimping on any important features and then selling that as a 'major progress') ... so the only route left is pre-owned ... but amazingly you can get something with BETTER FEATURES than the HotAir for about 500 US$ - just head for ebay or craiglist and look after a Dell X300 or Dell X1 - the 'secret' is to buy from a bigger seller that probably got a (very) large batch that was retired by a bank or something like that -they will have a decent description of the item, 10000+ feedback (so a scam is very unlikely) and most often you will get 2 weeks of 'warranty' so if things go wrong you can still send it back ...

X300 is cheaper and I recommend the models with the 1.4 GHz Low-Voltage CPU (but the older 1.2 GHz Low-Voltage CPU is also just fine and runs circles around the 600 MHz Celeron Low-Voltage from the eeePC). X1 comes with an Ultra-Low-Voltage CPU around 1-1.1 GHz - that one was only somehow superseded by Intel in 2007 by some models and the first major step forward will actually come in 2008 so it still is almost as good as it gets in the ultra-cool CPUs!

You can probably get a good X300 with 640 MB RAM, 30-40 GB HDD, docking station, combo CDRW/DVD and two batteries under 400 US$ delivered - if you want more RAM you should try to get one of the cheaper models with only 128 or 324 MB RAM since any memory upgrade will mean that you will throw away the memory from inside and add a 1 GB SODIMM stick from Crucial or similar for around 80 US$ - for a total of around 1.1 GB RAM which should be OK for any decent scenario. The same can go for the HDD if you need LOTS of space - you can upgrade to a 120 GB WD or Samsung 2.5'' model for well under 100 US$. The total will most likely come to less than 550$ even if you do both upgrades, and you will have an amazing subnotebook that is LIGHTER than the HotAir and has ALL the extensions you will ever need - USB, FireWire, PCMCIA, SD card reader, Ethernet, WiFi, video out, swappable battery, even modem and IRDA :)

Most of the machines will come with the original XP sticker so you will be able to install a clean legal version of the Dell OEM XP - but the hardware configuration is rather classic at this moment and most of the modern Linux distributions will work just fine (eventually with a little tweaking on the WiFi and Suspend to RAM part).

Another HUGE advantage over the Air or any of the 2000-3000 US$ new subnotebooks is that you can actually get 2 notebooks + all upgrades for under 1000 US$, and at that point you can always keep them 'cloned' and at any moment something fails you just switch to the other one - unlike a new expensive model where you might have warranty, but that means you will send the notebook (most likely together with ALL you confidential information) to be repaired and AT BEST you will get it back in 1-3 weeks ...

Finally here is another somehow similar post - Cloudbook vs eeePC vs X31 Thinkpad - the IBM Thinkpads are probably even better built than the X300/X1 but are slightly heavier and do not have a touchpad :( (that last one being the reason why X61T was not the absolute best TabletPC ever on the price/performance ratio - but I hope that Lenovo X71 will fix that :) ).