Laptop PC Available Now at $99, A True ‘Commodity’ Price

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When I bought my first computer, way back in the mid 1980’s, the going-in price, to get in the computer-owning game, was, in the U.S., $1,500 and change. That entry price didn’t change much, if at all, for around a decade. Then, slowly, very slowly, the price of an entry-level desk- or laptop – with the latter rapidly gaining favor over the former – inched downward.

By the turn of the century, according to a web site that shows, somewhat confusingly, prices of computers from 1975 through 2000, “computers come in a wide price range around $500; Prices are affected of course by memory size and CPU speed.”

That may – may – have been true, for desktops. But certainly not for laptops, according to gizmodo.com, which somewhat inaccurately described Sony’s VAIO PCG-SRX99, as “the smart phone of the day” – for a mere $1,500.  About what a desktop cost, with a monitor, in the mid ‘80’s.

For far too many years, I spent far too much time paying attention to the advertised prices of new PCs – not that I could afford to replace my first one. For a long time, until fairly recently, added capacities – larger hard drives, more RAM – enabled manufacturers and retailers to allow only slight slippages from that old $1,500 entry price.

Then something dramatic happened – pretty much unnoticed by most of the wannabe newcomers and computer upgraders: Businesses that had long leased automobiles for (select) employees began, in the early 2000’s, to lease PCs as well. A few years later, when those three- and five-year leases had run their course, those companies and others, of course, wanted to lease then-new computers, with their increased capacities, often well beyond the actual needs of the companies.

And the off-lease computers (still mostly desktops then), around 2005, became the commodities of a ‘secondary market’ – a market of resellers who’d clean hard drives, check that everything was working as it was supposed to, then sell the machines for prices a good deal lower than a new machine’s. That meant, early on, in the high triple figures.

As more and more ‘slightly used’ computers (including, as time went by, laptops) slipped into the secondary market, the richness of supply gradually brought prices down even more.

Over time, major computer retailers created their own secondary market, as they discounted ‘open box’ and ‘slightly marred’ units – which, of course, would gladly be grabbed up college-bound kids who realized that, in all likelihood, what they were getting was just as good as a unit in a sealed box with its manufacturer’s flawless, dent-free surface.

As nature would have it, the secondary markets have grown, and discounters have become more aggressive – not just on ‘Black Friday’ sales (now staged around the calendar, not just toward the end of November) – and the prices have kept falling.

A catch phrase fairly early in the PC age was that the machines people were buying for use in their homes ‘had more power than the computers that put men on the moon’. And that was when it was unheard of to have two gigabytes (GB) of memory – or even one!

Now, with super-fast processors and  4 GB of RAM superior to what 4 GB was a mere few years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard that today’s latest-and-greatest PCs have the power of the machines guiding the likes of the ones on the recent Jupiter and  Pluto missions.

And that, in every respect, speaks in favor of the main secondary market, and a lesser-known one: universities that sell (desktop) computers used in labs and elsewhere a couple or three years after they were purchased. When I still lived in Central New York State, I purchased several PCs from Colgate University, which was less than 30 miles from my home. Each unit was immaculate, with the then-current operating system, and … what more could you ask for, for a machine costing less than a new  one on eBay?

And here’s the bottom line: The PC of the year 2000 was more than adequate to do what most home users need, or want, to do.

I used to ask people, way back in the 90’s, who wanted to get their first computer, ‘do you want to do word processing, or design space ships?’ If the goal was the former, the latest-and-greatest not only wasn’t necessary, it was overkill. And, more than likely, a huge waste of money.

I’m working on a desktop that’s probably seven or more years old. It’s perfectly adequate for my needs – or would be, if I didn’t insist on having 12 or more windows open at a time. After a week or so, without a reboot, the system has a tendency to ‘hiccup’ at times. (Listening to music while I work can be problematic.)

But the fact that I can rely on such an ‘ancient’ machine for all my computing needs says a lot about how reliable older machines are.

And that $99 laptop mentioned above – from a web site called refurbees.com – shows how dramatically PC prices have fallen in two decades. And this is no lightweight machine, where its specs are concerned: Featuring an Intel Core 2 duo processor, a 14.1 inch display, 2 GB of DDR2 RAM, an 80 GB hard drive, high definition audio and Intel Integrated video, the system comes with Windows 7 home edition. Not the latest or greatest operation system, but a perfectly adequate one for most home users or students.